Eye Witness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 April, 2007, 12:00am

Leung Chun-ying, an executive councillor since 1997, reflects on life over the decade

How would you describe Hong Kong after the handover?

It's a very, very different Hong Kong as things turned out, compared to the rather grim or even dark predictions. We had confidence crises during much of the 15 years since [1982, when China said it wanted Hong Kong back] ... People were concerned not so much about the lack of full democracy. They were more concerned about the mundane things in life: the acceptability of the SAR passport, the convertibility of the Hong Kong dollar, the validity of professional qualifications, freedom to travel and other freedoms, a level playing field ... Ten years on, we all know by now none of these apprehensions became reality.

Is there any single event or development that has struck you most?

Naturally, it was the combination of the Asian financial crisis, Sars and a number of mishaps which the Hong Kong government did not handle to the satisfaction of Hong Kong people. That damaged confidence.

Other than external factors, what went wrong? Anything the government should have done better?

There was a build-up of real issues that the government before 1997 did not have the time or the energy to deal with. The new SAR government, as soon as it was sworn in, wanted to shoulder all these pretty difficult, sometimes impossible issues, impossible in terms of trying to solve them within a short span of time. Housing. Education. Environment. Infrastructure. The timing was bad. We were hit by the Asian financial crisis. The euphoria, the feel-good factor, that we had for a few months after the handover, evaporated.

Were we not well prepared?

We were very well prepared in terms of preparing for the new constitution, for a new constitutional, political order, for the first SAR of China, the first community in the world to practise 'one country, two systems'. There were other things we were not expecting like the Asian financial crisis. We thought we had a very sound economy, public finances. We thought we had a well-built [social] fabric. But Sars proved us wrong. Bird flu also proved us wrong. Our weaknesses were exposed.

The past 10 years have been difficult for both the government and society. What should we learn from it?

The community and government should not rush into changes including political reform ... Sometimes it's useful to pause and reflect on what we have achieved, where we have done well, not so well and what we can learn to plan ahead.

You have said Hong Kong is not a sovereign democracy. What's the difference between sovereign and non-sovereign democracy?

We are probably unique as a former colony in that we did not become a sovereign state. Therefore, we will not be a sovereign-based democracy even when we achieve direct election of all 60 Legislative Council members and the chief executive. The elected chief executive candidate has to be appointed by the central authorities. This appointment is substantive. This isn't a one-part process. It's a two-part process. Accountability of the chief executive is also dual accountability, unlike in a sovereign state. We have a rather unique design. This is where the difficulty lies.

What should we do?

We should not repeat the mistake we made between 1988 and 1990 when we were in the final two years of drafting the Basic Law. Certain quarters of Hong Kong were keenly interested in arguing for a higher proportion of direct elections to the Legco. We had arguments that were entirely numbers-based. We should also look at the functions of Legco as a whole, namely the relationship between executive and legislative authorities. Ten years into the SAR, very often we falter on that very important relationship. We shouldn't repeat the same mistake. Proponents for a speedy introduction of universal suffrage are tending to argue again in terms of numbers: 2012, 2017. It's entirely a matter of timetable, a matter of speed. We should also look at the question of the dual accountability of the chief executive, the possibility of a confrontational crisis with Beijing if a candidate having won a one man, one vote election in Hong Kong cannot receive the blessing of Beijing. What happens then? These are matters of fundamental importance to Hong Kong's stability and its relationship with the rest of the country. Sadly, we have not discussed this in Hong Kong. These matters are at least as important as the speed of introducing universal suffrage ... I'm not against the introduction of universal suffrage ... [but] we need to address these issues.

Universal suffrage has been debated for more than 20 years and people are getting impatient. Should there be a timetable?

Both a timetable and a road map are important. We should have an idea as to how long it will take and by what route it will take us to achieve the ultimate goal. We should ask ourselves what is our destination, namely the nature of our relationship with the central authorities as a SAR, not as a self-contained sovereignty. It's not going to be anything less challenging in designing a democratic political system for Hong Kong that complies with the Basic Law and sets Hong Kong as a democratic society within a larger country, without running the risk of constitutional mishaps or confrontation either within Hong Kong or with Beijing.

Have you ever contemplated running for the post of chief executive?

No. I do not have any plan in mind ... If you look back over the last 25 years, as a Hong Kong person and as a Chinese national, I think I have done enough for Hong Kong and for the country.

Is the pro-Beijing label still liability for people in the business of politics?

Things have become a lot better in recent years.

Critics accuse pro-Beijing figures of not telling the truth, just saying what Beijing leaders are happy to hear. Some truth in it?

This is not true. This is extremely unfair and illogical. If people who have access to decision makers in Beijing did not reflect public opinion truly and fully, how could we have implemented successfully 'one country, two systems' in Hong Kong?

When state leaders say something about Hong Kong it causes much speculation. How should we interpret their remarks?

We should understand their context, political language and political culture, which at times, are different from Hong Kong language and culture. Achieving a good understanding of things mainland would be a good start.

What you would like Hong Kong to become in the next five years?

It should become more confident about its achievements. At times, I wish Hong Kong people could just relax a bit, be more patient with themselves, with political leaders - not just people in government, but Legco members. I hope society can become more cohesive, that the 7 million people could feel towards each other more like family members, not just fellow guests living in a huge hotel that we check into and check out of through a rather expedient subway. Hong Kong left the status of a colony behind in 1997. We did not go through the process of the birth of nationhood. We did not really acquire a new identity ... We need to have a stronger sense of identity, a stronger sense of belonging for the Hong Kong community to overcome the challenges, to survive the trials and tribulations that lie ahead.