A royal pointer for Hong Kong's hybrid politics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2012, 12:00am

It's been a tough few weeks for republican-minded Brits as the nation erupted in a wave of enthusiasm for the Queen's diamond jubilee celebrations. Few national leaders have enjoyed this level of enthusiasm after six decades of rule; indeed, the only other leader who springs to mind is another monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

Both monarchs are heads of state presiding over democratically elected governments and possess considerable power that is rarely exercised. But at decisive moments of their nation's history, these monarchs have played a vital role, as was seen in Britain during the second world war, and in Thailand in 1992, when a military coup was effectively overturned by the king.

In both countries, even the monarchists want democratic government but they are quite satisfied to have an unelected, hereditary head of state. Indeed, in Britain, the royalist trump card played when arguing with republicans is to ask whether they would prefer some grubby politician as head of state.

Yet, some of these so-called grubby politicians have been highly successful heads of state, the most obvious examples are former presidents Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Both came to office not just by election but following a turbulent period in their nation's history.

Hong Kong seems to have acquired the worst of both worlds. We have an allegedly elected head of government but that election is notoriously rigged and confined to a small circle of participants; meanwhile, the head of state is far away in Beijing, effectively chosen in secret by a small cabal of Communist Party grandees.

Of the two heads of government in Hong Kong so far, one slunk from office with greatly lowered levels of popularity, and the other looks set to follow. And now there's an incoming chief executive whose poll ratings are shrinking even before he assumes office. As for the head of state, he is remote, yet wields real power over Hong Kong.

If this head of state simply sticks to the formula enshrined in the 'one country, two systems' concept, and does not intervene in purely local affairs, there would be less antagonism. But intervention from Beijing is becoming increasingly heavy-handed.

Apparently, the new chief executive has already had the choice of at least one of his ministers vetoed. And the growing practice of referring decisions up north actually accelerated under the outgoing boss whose lack of self-confidence, in matters outside travel arrangements, has become notorious.

When Tung Chee-hwa was in charge, he liked to micromanage. When Donald Tsang Yam-kuen took over, he, too, revelled in the centralisation of power but, as a creature of the bureaucracy, had more confidence in its members.

Both men seemed preoccupied by the details, leaving the big picture to ... well, to whom exactly? In many ways, the bosses in Beijing merely want to ensure that nothing happens in Hong Kong that threatens the integrity of the one-party state system. So they respond to requests for action but seem to lack vision.

Hong Kong's third chief executive may have something of a vision, although it is not clear what it is. However, he lacks the legitimacy of a popular mandate to implement any kind of vision. Even before taking office, he has set out on a path of alienating the only people with a mandate - legislators. They in turn, thanks to Hong Kong's system, have the power to block things happening but no authority to make things happen.

The very structure of Hong Kong's peculiar system sows the seeds of its many problems. But there may be some lessons that could be drawn from the two highly successful monarchies of Britain and Thailand.

Even though the system is dysfunctional, there is scope for leadership, albeit from a leader with no popular mandate. If, like the successful royal heads of state, China's president were to show considerable restraint in exercising his power, and if the chief executive really worked at winning over public opinion, there might be some chance of better governance - but don't hold you breath.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur


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