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Donald Tsang

Show us you can do better, C.Y.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am

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Leung Chun-ying is assured of a singular place in history when he is sworn in today as the city's third chief executive since its return to Chinese sovereignty. He will be our last leader before the promised introduction of a fully democratic election for chief executive from 2017. If he succeeds and seeks a second term, he could cement his place by also becoming the first elected by universal suffrage.

That is a big if. He has set himself the challenge of building a fairer society by first addressing the pressing issues of a growing wealth gap and unaffordable housing. It will be a test of his leadership, since he has retained most of his predecessor's ministers. He faces a daunting task from day one. Amid troubles at home and abroad, he does not have the luxury of a political honeymoon - usually afforded a new leader.

Abroad, Europe's struggle to control a debt crisis leaves Hong Kong's externally oriented economy exposed to uncertainty about global growth and financial market jitters. Leung must ensure that the city is well prepared to weather economic turbulence. At home, he assumes office with low public approval ratings compared with his predecessors Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. That is partly the legacy of a divisive election battle that resulted in a relatively slim majority for him in the Election Committee, followed by conflict with lawmakers over his planned revamp of the government structure.

It has been compounded by the self-inflicted damage of the illegal structures affair at his Peak home, which raised questions about his integrity. As a result he faces a credibility gap. Hopefully, the only way his standing can go is up. It is important he puts his rocky start behind him and repairs public trust, so he can focus on the issues that really matter to Hong Kong people, and on enhancing the city's future as a special part of China under the 'one country, two systems' concept.

Concrete policies

He has earned the right to a chance to carry out his promise to address the root causes of social discontent - the rich-poor gap, housing and the environment. If any reminder of this pledge was needed, it is to be found in recent government figures showing Hong Kong has the greatest inequality of income of any developed economy, according to the internationally recognised Gini co-efficient.

Leung has 100-odd days before his first policy address to shore up people's confidence in his integrity and suitability to be chief executive, and lay the foundations for a good working relationship with the legislature. Without that, the challenges ahead could prove insurmountable. Hong Kong cannot afford any longer a dysfunctional interface between the executive and lawmakers. He should listen to voices suggesting he should put on hold for the time being the revamp of government structure that has absorbed so much of his transition team's time and tested the goodwill of some lawmakers. After all, he has said the sky would not fall under the current arrangements.

He should focus instead on developing concrete policies and plans to address housing needs and poverty. The government is sitting on huge fiscal reserves. Individual wealth and prosperity abound. Yet welfare agencies estimate that well over a million people live in poverty. That cannot be good for social stability and cohesion. Leung needs to show that government can do better than occasional cash handouts to paper over a widening rich-poor gap. At the same time, new measures must not undermine the city's competitiveness and renowned self-reliance and enterprise, or destabilise the property market.

In the long run, the city's competitiveness, and the ideal of a fair and tolerant society, will be best served by visionary policies to develop social and economic infrastructure that can make it a more attractive and equitable society in which to live and work. That calls for reforms of health care and education, a population policy that combats an ageing workforce and meaningful action to tackle air pollution.

Core values

Leung comes to office amid social discontent, unease about Hong Kong's autonomy as integration with the mainland gathers pace, and public disquiet over standards in public office and collusion with tycoons. He may lack a popular mandate; his public approval ratings may have fallen well short of honeymoon levels; the illegal-structures affair may have cast a cloud over his integrity. But, on the other hand, his promise to address poverty, housing and the environment taps into the mainstream of public concerns. And he can inspire confidence in the future by making it clear that protection of our freedoms under 'one country, two systems' - and the goal of fully democratic elections - are paramount. After all, the city's core values of the rule of law, free speech and human rights are not just fundamental to its success, but serve as a Chinese model of democratic development.

Though he has not radically reshuffled the ministries, he has boasted that his team shares his vision of seeking change while preserving stability. The test will be whether it is more effective in getting things done than in the past. He will need to establish effective teamwork.

This is, in a sense, the first change of government since the handover, since Tsang was already chief secretary when he was appointed in the wake of Tung's resignation. For Hong Kong's sake, Leung deserves a fair chance from the public and lawmakers to deliver on his promise that it will bring real change.