Inside Track

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 12:00am

IT HAS TAKEN almost five years to reach this point, but it is now finally possible to feel sorry for Tung Chee-hwa in the wake of some of the more extreme responses to his Policy Address.

That might sound a strange thing to say in a column which is more often harshly critical of the Chief Executive, and which has incurred his wrath in the past. But it became difficult not to feel at least slightly more generous towards the poor old man last week, as he ineffectually sought to fend off calls to step down 'for the good of Hong Kong'.

One angry radio phone-in show caller went so far as to say the only thing she wanted to hear from Mr Tung was that he would not be standing for a second term. Others have resorted to stronger abuse, with one pre-Policy Address caller even saying he was worse than Osama bin Laden. This was based on the bizarre premise that the alleged terrorist leader only downed two office blocks in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre (and apparently ignored the fact more than 5,000 were killed), whereas Mr Tung is said to have destroyed the whole Hong Kong property market with his housing policies.

Anyone who is the target of that kind of nonsensical abuse deserves some sympathy, and Mr Tung is no exception. Especially as, acting more like a grandfather figure than a political leader, he sits there and soaks up criticism rather than respond in kind, as his more combative pre-1997 counterpart, former Governor Chris Patten, would undoubtedly have done.

And although last Wednesday's Policy Address was certainly a disappointment, in the present mood of doom and gloom, whatever Mr Tung said was always bound to be seen as insufficient. Indeed, even if he had unwisely caved in to the public pressure to raid the reserves to pay for a tax rebate - a move which failed to revive the economy when it was last tried two years ago - the calls for him to step down would probably have continued. For the Chief Executive is clearly becoming an increasingly popular punch bag for events largely beyond his control. After all, not even his most far-fetched critics would seek to blame Mr Tung for the acceleration of the global economic slowdown caused by the September 11 terrorist attacks. And appalling though his leadership skills undoubtedly are, no one would be heaping this kind of vitriol on him if the economy was booming.

None of this is to excuse Mr Tung's culpability for mistakes that exacerbated the present woes. Although widely supported at the time, his now-scrapped target of 85,000 new flats a year was - with hindsight - ill thought-out, and contributed to the bursting of the property bubble far faster than the economy could safely handle.

And his Policy Address certainly failed to provide the leadership needed in such a crisis, not to mention the financial goodies much of Hong Kong was expecting. But since such lavish handouts were impossible for fear of further swelling the budget deficit, perhaps Mr Tung's biggest mistake was to deliver a Policy Address at all.

As this column has previously argued, the Policy Address is an outdated colonial tradition that serves little purpose in today's fast-moving society.

Events last week have also shown its continuing existence can do actual harm, by raising public expectations to a level which are dangerous to fulfil. And that Mr Tung is almost bound to be vilified, regardless of what he says.

So perhaps he will learn a lesson from this, and finally realise it is time to scrap this annual ritual - by making this year's Policy Address his last.

Danny Gittings is the Post's Editorial Pages Editor