A lack of foresight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2012, 12:00am

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen probably had one of the best moments of his life when he gave his first policy address in October 2005, five months after he was tapped to replace Tung Chee-hwa as chief executive.

In his policy address, themed 'Strong governance for the people', Tsang defined the pursuit of excellence in governance as the most pressing public demand on his administration.

Seven years later, this arguably remains a pressing demand but political scientists and lawmakers say that the standards of governance have failed to improve because Tsang's officials were insensitive to public opinion, conservative in setting policy, and they had been hindered by a distorted political system.

'[People] thought that [Tung] was clumsy and indecisive, but at least he had the vision and was very sincere about it,' said lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a former security minister who served under Tung.

'In the Tsang administration ... its standards of governance, effectiveness, and public morals have declined. Former senior officials are involved in apparent corruption, unprecedented levels of corruption,' said Ip, referring to the arrest of Rafael Hui Si-yan, Tsang's chief secretary from 2005 to 2007.

Hui is under investigation for corruption related to his dealings with the billionaire Kwok brothers, who run Sun Hung Kai Properties, among the city's largest property developers. They have yet to be charged.

Ip's belief that the standards of governance have declined under Tsang is supported by findings of the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, which has monitored the popularity of chief executives and their administrations since the handover.

Tsang's latest popularity rating is 38.5 points - 10 points below Tung's final rating and slightly above Tung's record low of 36.2 points after 500,000 Hongkongers took to the streets in 2003 demanding his resignation and that of two of his ministers.

When he succeeded Tung in June 2005, Tsang had a record popularity rating of 72.3 points, because Hongkongers were expecting that his experience in the civil service would help create a better future for them.

But over the next 18 months, Tsang's ratings declined gradually to below 60 points at the end of 2006. It later rebounded to 68.9 points in the run-up to the chief executive election in 2007, which saw the Election Committee hand Tsang an overwhelming victory against his pan-democrat rival, Alan Leong Kah-kit.

New policy proposals and his vision for the next five years sustained Tsang's strong popularity for another year, but his decision in May 2008 to add undersecretaries and political assistants to his cabinet marked the turning point in his term and the start of his deteriorating popularity.

Their generous salaries and the uproar over the limited scope of the appointment exercise led to accusations of favouritism - pushing Tsang's rating down a dramatic 14 points to just 51.8 in three months.

Further controversies and policy missteps exacerbated the decline, and Tsang's rating fell below the 50-point level in October 2009 after he declared a cash coupons initiative to spur the use of energy-saving light bulbs. That sparked allegations of nepotism, as the decision benefited the business of his elder son's father-in-law. However, Tsang's popularity rebounded in 2010 after his administration won public approval for its handling of the aftermath of the Manila hostage crisis in August that year. In that incident, eight Hongkongers were killed and seven wounded during a botched Philippine police operation to end a gunman's siege.

Shortly afterwards in January last year, the government suffered a humiliating defeat when its motion seeking approval for a HK$6 billion bid to host the 2023 Asian Games was rejected by an overwhelming majority in the Legislative Council because it lacked public support.

A month later, Tsang's administration drew more criticisms when Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced his budget for the coming year - when it chose to inject HK$6,000 into every Hongkonger's Mandatory Provident Fund account and rejected calls for a large-scale tax handout.

These political mistakes pushed Tsang's ratings down to just 48.7 points in February last year. His administration subsequently bowed to public pressure and agreed to give all permanent residents HK$6,000 each.

But what seem to have most damaged Tsang's popularity are the revelations this year about his dealings with tycoons and his stays in luxurious hotel suites at public expense.

Of his dealings with the tycoons, what seemed to have offended the public the most was Tsang's agreement to rent a luxury apartment in Shenzhen at a preferential rate.

The HKU surveys also show that as Tsang became increasing unpopular, public dissatisfaction with his administration rose as well. This disquiet accelerated from 17.1 per cent of Hongkongers in June 2005 to 52.7 per cent this February - the highest level in eight years.

Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said that while it was hard to determine whether Tsang or Tung did a better job based on their popularity ratings, he believed that Tsang had failed to achieve 'strong governance' because he lacked sensitivity to public opinion.

'Tsang's cabinet was detached from the public,' Ma said. 'Policy formation was top-down, and his advisory bodies were predominated by members from the upper class.'

Ma also identified Tsang's civil-servant mindset as another major flaw. 'There are many deep-rooted conflicts in Hong Kong, but Tsang seemed to lack the energy and audacity to tackle them. Instead, he performed his job like a civil servant,' Ma said. 'Tsang was too concerned with whether something was achievable ... therefore many of his policies were just minor repair works, lacking long-term vision.'

Ma's critique of Tsang's conservatism echoes a report released this month by SynergyNet, a think tank which examined the government's performance since the handover. It found that Tsang tabled only 142 legislative bills since taking office in 2005 - less than half the 298 bills Tung had tabled.

SynergyNet vice-chairman Brian Fong Chi-hang, a social studies lecturer at City University, said Tsang's legislative record showed that he was passive and lacked the will to enact controversial reforms.

Fong also argued that Tsang's pragmatism did not mean better governance, as only 59.86 per cent of Tsang's bills became law. Still, that is slightly better than Tung's 57.05 per cent, although Tung passed twice as many bills into law as Tsang.

As chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying will take over the reins of power on Sunday, SynergyNet suggests that he should work with major political factions to achieve an agreement and set up a coalition government with them to ensure the legal passage of policy initiatives. That would be preferable to just inviting party leaders to join the Executive Council, it said, suggesting that could break the political impasse.

Lawmaker Tam Yiu-chung, chairman of the Beijing-loyalist Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), agreed that Leung should include more party leaders in Exco to help shape policy initiatives, but he stressed that it did not mean the DAB would support every policy that Leung's administration tables.

Tam was also less critical of Tsang's tenure as chief executive, crediting him with being more receptive to DAB's policy proposals than Tung. But Tam hinted that his party was dissatisfied with Tsang for lacking vision in terms of his housing and population policies, but were happy that his administration achieved progress in constitutional reforms.

The DAB chairman was referring to the decision in December 2007 of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to allow Hongkongers to elect their leader in 2017 and elect all lawmakers in 2020, despite objecting to universal suffrage for the city this year. And later in 2010, the government's electoral package was passed in Legco to create 10 more seats for the direct election of lawmakers this September.

Even so, Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan disagreed that electoral progress could be regarded as among the chief executive's achievements.

The Democrats voted in favour of the package two years ago after Tsang's administration agreed to provide five new legislative seats to represent 3.2 million Hongkongers with no say in the vote for functional constituencies. The seats were originally proposed to be up for election among district councillors only.

'His role was very passive when pushing forward the package,' Ho recalled, adding that he was also disappointed with Tsang because '[Tsang] dared not say that functional constituencies have to be scrapped by 2020, and that the chief executive should to be elected by 'one person, one vote' with a low [franchise] threshold'.

Ho said that he was more convinced than ever that there were no better ways to improve governance than to promote democracy and safeguard Hong Kong's high level of autonomy. 'Universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017 must be a genuine one.

'Many other institutions in Hong Kong are actually doing quite well, but we cannot be without democracy ... the biggest problem in Hong Kong is in our political system. If we cannot resolve it, the quarrels and the fights will continue.'


The number of legislative bills Donald Tsang has tabled since 2005, fewer than the 298 bills tabled by his predecessor


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A lack of foresight

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