Out with the old, in with instability

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


Last month, David Li Kwok-po, a long-time representative of the banking industry on the Legislative Council, announced that he would not seek re-election. 'The past 27 years was a waste of time,' Li complained. 'I wish I had never entered politics, and I would ask my sons not to do so.' What caused Li to take such a dim view of politics after so many years of being a prominent part of the system?

One explanation for the unhappy end to another incestuous affair between business and politics is the upending of the old bureaucratic system. Once upon a time, government officials were promoted purely based on experience and competence in true Weberian fashion. They could reach ministerial positions purely by dint of technocratic merit.

The government was a stubbornly hierarchal organisation that valued technical superiority above all else. Civil servants could expect to move up every few years, and deviations occurred only due to extreme performance or luck. Thus, it was easy for the city's business elites to cosy up to the government's ruling class, which featured a cast of regulars that exited the stage only at retirement.

Contest for the government's top job, as we have seen in the last chief executive election, however, introduced uncertainty to every level of government. Despite complaints that the race was essentially a choice between two bad options ('the less unpopular candidate won', an article concluded), the election did produce an unexpected outcome and an element of unpredictability.

In this new reality, businesspeople hoping to gain favour with the next chief must participate in some form of political horse-betting. Speculators who back the wrong candidate may find themselves grumpily disillusioned and cut off from political influence.

The same can be said of government hopefuls vying for a piece of the pie, as loyal supporters of the new chief - mostly outsiders and political underdogs - are tipped to play prominent roles in the next administration. The fact that these political appointee jobs are open to everyone, including young people without a university degree or civil service experience, signifies the declining importance of traditional bureaucratic competence.

More than 1,000 people have put their names in the hat for the highly sought-after positions, competing to woo chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying with their vision of Hong Kong's future development. In forming his own team with people he likes and replacing principal officials, undersecretaries and political assistants all in one strike, Leung brings us one step closer - as his predecessors did - to politicising the government's top-level leadership.

There are many implications for people seeking opportunities within this new structure. While the political tier is here to stay, individuals appointed to these positions are not. The public is determined that the chief advantage and impetus of the public accountability scheme are increased accountability. Since the appointments are political in nature, public scrutiny will bring instability to these jobs.

In the current Legco debate on the incoming chief's restructuring plans for the government, a burning issue is how a minister who underperforms should be made accountable. Should he or she be demoted, have his or her salary cut, or be made to bow out? Clearly, public expectation is such that an appointee who loses favour in the eyes of the people and becomes a political liability to the chief executive will be quickly relieved of his duties. The contract system and the availability of a large pool of outside talent supposedly make it much easier to do so than in the past.

This general sentiment is evident in the recent controversies surrounding corruption among high-ranking government officials. It is surprising to no one that many members of the business elite have both lawfully and unlawfully bought political influence from willing participants.

Nonetheless, as government becomes less bureaucratic and more influenced by politics, officials are expected to provide leadership in policy as well as morality. Thus, intense public outrage erupted over Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's greedy habits, with many calling for punishments much harsher than the actual crime.

As this article goes to print, more businessmen and former officials in the camp of disgraced chief executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen are coming to grief over alleged corruption in Hong Kong or Macau or other manifestations of poor performance, fuelling a conspiracy theory that the retribution game is on. Whatever happened, call it retribution or simply the withdrawal of protection by the powers-that-be, a reshuffle of the deck upon the election of a new leader is likely to be the shape of things to come.

After all, a transfer of power, with all that it implies in terms of who goes up and down, is what periodic democratic elections are supposed to bring. Democracy is supposed to usher in greater equality, transparency, accountability and social justice. But also unpredictability, instability, and trade-offs with efficiency and bureaucratic reliability.

The new system, which promises salvation to many, comes as a shock to those still living in the old system, like David Li. As Hong Kong people soldier on in the long march to democracy, let us be crystal clear about all the changes - some more desirable than others - that democracy might entail.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party