Fault lines

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am


What does the public make of the new administration under chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying? There are those who continue to harp on his pro-Beijing background, reducing everything into the same old pro-democracy versus pro-Beijing struggle which has haunted Hong Kong politics since the pre-1997 transition.

But things do not need to play to a doomsday script. Leung is certainly someone from within the establishment whom Beijing trusts. However, he did not emerge from the establishment inner-circle that has dominated Hong Kong governance. Throughout his campaign and after his election, Leung has positioned himself as a challenger promising change and new thinking on social and economic issues, such as housing and the environment.

Hong Kong has to get out of the political quagmire in which it has been trapped for years. The city's politics is a no-win game.

Mainland officials often wonder why the government has not been able to implement an 'executive-led' system, as the former British administration claimed to have successfully done. The reason is not just that we have a vocal opposition that favours confrontational politics. Our system is defective; this is the result of attempts during the Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s to preserve an outdated modus operandi that has proved to be incompatible with political and social realities after 1997.

The present system fails to confer a bottom-up political mandate to the chief executive, and executive-legislative relations are disconnected and unstable, to say the least. Three decades of district and legislative elections have bred the rise of political parties that nevertheless have no hope of being 'in government'. Thus, most have opted to play the opposition in different degrees - curbing government power and questioning its actions.

If Leung is keen on a more proactive government, he has not only to forge a social consensus on such a paradigm shift by reaching out to various sectors in the community, but also to win over the legislature in supporting an expansion of the government's role. This entails politics. With the pro-democracy versus pro-Beijing dichotomy dominating political debate, it is easy to point fingers at government officials and to sow the seeds of distrust in any authority, except possibly the judiciary.

Hong Kong is not alone in such difficulty; in other developed societies, citizens are also becoming increasingly sceptical and distrusting of their governments and politicians, so that efforts are often ignored and issues amplified.

Such limitations notwithstanding, any government must still make the best of it. Despite anger in some quarters of society, there are many Hongkongers who believe we must find a way to take Hong Kong out of the conundrum. The solution may not be easy or straightforward, but doing nothing is not an alternative.

Leung's new government has to learn to work with politics, not against it. It has to rebuild trust and a sense of hope, especially among our young generation, in the city's political future and in its social and economic prospects. Hence, politics and policies should both be at the core of the agenda of change, and the two are mutually dependent - without good policies, it would be difficult to gain political trust; without political support, it would be hard to embark on policy reform.

Some legislators and commentators have queried Leung's plan for restructuring the bureaus, increasing their number from 12 to 14. In most systems, politicians respect the prerogative of the prime minister or president in reorganising the cabinet and reshuffling ministries and departments. There is no hard and fast rule as to what is the best structure.

The new French president, Francois Hollande, has just named a 38-year-old Korean-born technocrat, Fleur Pellerin, as the minister in charge of small and medium-sized enterprises, innovation and the digital economy. In Hong Kong, such an appointment might have raised the issues of whether someone in their thirties was too 'young' for appointment as secretary or even undersecretary, and whether her portfolio would be too narrow for a ministry, arousing suspicions of political empire-building. Hong Kong started with only eight branches in the government secretariat - the equivalent of our present-day bureaus - in the mid-1970s, as a result of the so-called McKinsey reform.

By the 1990s, the number had increased to 15. After the introduction of political appointments in 2002, the ministerial portfolios were contained within 11 bureaus, subsequently reorganised into 12 in 2007.

There is no magic number. It is more important to have a logical division of functions in tandem with the changing circumstances and needs of governance, and to ensure proper co-ordination within government, so as to deliver results. This is what political accountability should be about.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank