Change up a gear

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2007, 12:00am

As a piece of parting advice for Hong Kong's first chief executive, then governor Chris Patten set out, in his last policy address on October 2, 1996, what he believed should be done to ensure the city's continued success. He laid down 10 'key elements' that should be included in the policy agenda of the special administrative region's first government and 14 'benchmarks' by which the implementation of the 'one country, two systems' policy should be judged.

The essence of almost every one of Mr Patten's suggestions was preservation. Each of the 10 'key elements' consisted of one of the virtues Hong Kong had attained under British rule.

These included a free market, increasing competition, a level playing field for business, determination and effectiveness in fighting corruption and crime, social harmony, equal opportunity for the disabled, a heavy investment in education, help for the unemployed, and autonomy in economic and trade matters.

These were the factors contributing to Hong Kong's success. They were all there before the British governor departed, and it was up to the post-1997 government to ensure they would be retained. A similar tone underlay Mr Patten's enumeration of the 'benchmarks'.

Each benchmark was related to a British legacy: a professional and meritocratic civil service; autonomy in public finance and monetary policy; independence of the judiciary and the legislature; integrity of the Hong Kong-mainland border; or protection of rights and freedoms.

The success of Hong Kong after 1997, said Mr Patten, should be judged by how well each of these British legacies would be maintained. Now, it is 10 years after the handover. Has Hong Kong lived up to Mr Patten's benchmarks?

British Consul-General Stephen Bradley has said recently that, in the view of his government, 'it is quite clear, 10 years on, that the transfer of sovereignty on the basis of the 1984 Joint Declaration has proved to be a success'. Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club recently, Mr Bradley said he had always believed China would honour promises in the Joint Declaration.

'With the eye of hindsight, clearly we [those who believed the Joint Declaration would be successfully implemented] were right and the merchants of doom were wrong,' he said. 'As it happens, things now look better than even an optimist like me would have predicted.'

An unbiased observer would agree with Mr Bradley that most of the doomsday predictions were wrong. On the other hand, we have been taken by surprise in the past 10 years by real and serious problems occurring in areas we had not worried about. Our optimism about Hong Kong's economy, for example, was as mistaken as the pessimism in some of us about our political future. In his 1996 address, Mr Patten talked triumphantly about Hong Kong's '35 years of uninterrupted economic growth', which allowed his government to expand public expenditure generously while offering tax cuts and reducing the tax base.

We all took our continued economic prosperity for granted, and paid little attention to unwelcome warnings about the dangers of the inflating economic bubble. We have learned the hard way the meanings of 'deflation' and 'negative equity', terms never before heard in relation to Hong Kong.

Most of us are now more aware of the threats and challenges to our development, and of the need for new initiatives and fresh efforts to sustain growth. We also see more clearly the conflicts that will come with economic growth, like the widening gap between rich and poor, and energy and environmental problems.

Conflicts in the past years have also reminded us that there is a range of public policy areas where reform is long overdue. Public debates on housing, education, health care, social welfare, labour, environmental protection and other areas have been going on for years, some starting long before the SAR's establishment.

The pre-handover government saw the need for reform, and made some efforts to consult the public, for example, on a long-term housing policy, a sustainable health care financing system and an old-age pension scheme. But the impending transfer of government made it impossible for any of these proposals to materialise.

The first SAR government tried to forge ahead with some of these reforms, but was thwarted by the economic downturn, an unsalvageable decline in its popularity and strong opposition from various sectors of the community.

If 'preservation' was the key word in the first decade of the SAR, it must be 'change' in the next, for most of the reforms cannot be put off any longer, in order to enhance our competitiveness, sustain growth and maintain social harmony.

Tsang Yok-sing is a directly elected legislator for Kowloon West