A wild card in Hong Kong politics?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 July, 2004, 12:00am

The dramatic turn of events leading to the downfall of two top health officials last week in the wake of the Legislative Council's Sars inquiry will be remembered as a thought-provoking episode at the end of the legislative session.

The Legco select committee's report may be undecided about how health officials should be penalised, but the people gave their verdict: Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong had to go. This swift burst of emotive calls for him to resign, shortly after the release of the report last Monday, shaped the political agenda.

By Wednesday, four major parties had jumped in, one after the other, calling for Dr Yeoh to stand down. The rest is history.

And indeed history will remember that it was the voices of ordinary people directly or indirectly affected by Sars - not the report itself - that tilted the balance of opinion on Dr Yeoh's fate.

The criticism of Dr Yeoh as 'shameless' by one family affected by Sars put him in a morally indefensible position. Growing public sympathy towards the distraught families swiftly turned into enormous pressure on politicians to act.

Shortly after Dr Yeoh's resignation, one man whose parents had died from Sars told the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper: 'This is also a show of people power.'

The sheer force of people power interacting with the power of an erratic media has cast a shadow over the functioning of representative democracy introduced in Legco in 1985.

The dramatic resignation of Dr Yeoh and Hospital Authority chief Leong Che-hung has emerged as the latest sample of perhaps the closest thing Hong Kong has to real democracy.

The phenomenal success of an anti-reclamation campaign last year was seen as another textbook case showing the power of a politically aware civil society.

The post-Sars fallout and the reclamation saga say a lot about the drastically changing political landscape. In the wake of the 500,000-strong July 1 rally last year, and the subsequent change in policies - such as the shelving of the national security bill and the resignation of security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and finance chief Antony Leung Kam-chung - there is a greater sense of awareness over the importance of 'standing up and being counted'.

Events in the past year show that this growing awareness is proving more sustainable than many people had anticipated in the aftermath of the march last year.

The surprise results and high voter turnout at last November's district council elections, and the consistently high number of participants at major political rallies, are cases in point.

It has posed a challenge not only to the executive authorities, but also to political parties and the elected legislature.

Meanwhile, opinion polls have found that more people are becoming dissatisfied with the overall performance of Legco. Publicly bashing the council has become fashionable in some quarters of society.

Although fewer than half the seats are returned by 'one person, one vote', through geographical constituencies, the council is an integral part of the city's political framework, with a large electorate base. It enacts law, passes the annual budget and, more importantly, represents the people.

If the power of the people fails to be institutionalised through the election of representatives to the legislature and the executive branches, it could become a wild card in the body politics of society.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large