Put the people first

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2012, 12:00am


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In Hong Kong these days, the sense of discontent among many sections of our population is abundantly clear. To judge by what you read in the newspapers, you might also think that all our problems arise from not having a fully elected government, and that all our difficulties would therefore quickly disappear if only democracy were introduced tomorrow.

I agree that good government must be government for the people, and that democracy is an ideal we should strive towards. Where I profoundly disagree, however, is that government for the people necessarily involves the full and free elections usually associated with government by the people. In themselves, elections do not guarantee a government that rules in the interests of the majority of citizens, just as an absence of elections does not necessarily preclude a government that does.

I believe Hongkongers, with their practical wisdom, may understand this better than some of the politicians who claim to represent them. They know that full democracy is on its way, but it is not here today nor will it be here tomorrow. In the meantime, if they cannot have government by the people, they still want government for the people. This is what we have enjoyed on many occasions in the past, when enlightened policies have nurtured the strong institutions and economic growth that made our city one of the world's most stable and prosperous. So we have a right to expect the same today.

As we can see from the financial turmoil elsewhere in the world, Hong Kong still does many things right. Yet this does not mean that we should be in any way complacent, because our home has many serious problems and if we are to continue to thrive and prosper, we need to tackle them at their root.

At the highest level, rising economic inequality in the midst of continuing overall prosperity is something that needs to be addressed urgently. Although Hong Kong's gross domestic product has been growing at an average of 3 per cent in the past 15 years, and our GDP per capita reached a high of more than US$35,000, our poverty gap is widening.

Throughout history, such inequalities have undermined trust in economic elites and in government. So they are today in Hong Kong. Last month, a University of Hong Kong survey showed that people's discontent with government had risen to an all-time high, with 36 per cent of people holding a negative view of government, and a mere 23 per cent a positive view.

Nor is such disaffection prompted only by economic considerations. There is no doubt that the quality of our environment, medical services, land and housing supply, as well as education, are under ever more pressure. These problems will take time and money to fix. Yet although our public coffers are far from empty, there seems to have been insufficient political will to address these and similar issues. The result has been an increasing lack of trust in government itself. This is corrosive of any society and so it is a matter of the utmost importance that this trust be regained. I am optimistic that it can be. What it will take is for the government to be seen to be responding to the concerns of ordinary people and doing the right thing to effect positive change. This, in turn, means government must have the courage of its convictions to stand against narrow, entrenched interests, and against the battering of the special interest groups, to do what is right.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that the administration should in any way abandon the core values that Hongkongers hold dear, such as the rule of law. Institutions such as this, as the Harvard and Oxford historian Niall Ferguson argues, are the crucial underpinnings of any form of government that is not to be arbitrary and expropriating. So we need consultations. We need to follow procedures carefully. We need transparency and accountability. We need the rule of law. We also need to ensure that we maintain the economic growth required to provide the wealth of the future.

But above all, we need leadership. I believe we now have a leadership committed to making changes in the interests of all Hong Kong people, and that the new administration will recruit those who can help execute its plans.

It will not be able to achieve anything, however, if it is not allowed to lead and govern. To an extent that has become very discouraging, and does not show us in a good light internationally, Hong Kong is now riven with political discord. Rather than seeing the many commonalities and working together to overcome the big challenges we face, people are focusing their energies on issues which in the grand scheme of things are of merely passing significance. The result is that the new administration has been hobbled before it has even had a chance to get off the ground. Political points may be scored, but no one wins, least of all the poor, the elderly, the sick and the homeless.

So I would like to ask our politicians to call a ceasefire. Please, give the new government the chance to prove it deserves the mandate of the people, by doing the right things. Work with the administration on the many important areas of agreement, rather than disproportionately spending time and energy on magnifying the far less important differences. This is only right and reasonable, and I believe it is what the Hong Kong people want, what the transition to democratic government requires, and what the 1997 handover was designed to achieve.

Barry Cheung is a member of the new Executive Council, and chairman of the Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange and the Urban Renewal Authority