Principles and promises won't do
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The struggle over Queen's Pier is a case of an unelected government stuck so deep in its old ways that it is incapable of new thinking. It doesn't help that the administration's point man in feeling the pulse of the public, Lau Siu-kai, is so lost in his own world that he is having trouble understanding ours.
Professor Lau heads the government's secretive Central Policy Unit. Those with long memories will remember that he is the man who assured the then chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, that the July 1, 2003 anti-government street protest wouldn't draw many people. Half a million turned up, creating a wave that swept Mr Tung, and some unpopular ministers, from power. But unlike Beijing, which made Mr Tung accountable for his leadership failures by forcing his ouster, the chief executive - who introduced accountability into his own administration - never made Professor Lau accountable for his monumental misreading of the public mood.
This same Professor Lau has now told us that the vast majority of the public favours the destruction of Queen's Pier to make way for a highway. Yet, he won't say how he reached this conclusion. Nor has he ever explained how his Central Policy Unit got it so wrong in 2003.
That may be water under the bridge now, but it still raises this question: did the failures of the Tung administration make the current one wiser, or more duplicitous? Professor Lau cites internal polls to make his claim that the people care little about Queen's Pier and have little sympathy for the protesters.
Internal polls are fine, if you keep them internal. But once you cite them to publicly justify government policy, you can no longer keep them secret.
How do we know Professor Lau is not twisting the findings of the secret polls, just as the colonial government did in the 1980s, by insisting that public opinion was against democracy? Professor Lau must publicly prove the internal polls' credibility by releasing every detail.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is big on public opinion polls. He sees them as a way to govern; a compass to help make the correct policies. He has told us that any democracy model that Hong Kong eventually adopts must have the support of 60 per cent of the people. But how will he measure public opinion? Who will conduct the polls and how open will they be? He has not said, nor is it made clear in the consultation document on political reform.
What are we to do if Professor Lau comes back, at the end of the consultation period, and says that his secret polls show the people are against democracy? Are we supposed to take his word at face value, like he expects us to in the case of Queen's Pier?
Mr Tsang has promised us an open government that is responsive to the people. It was a campaign promise that is now rusty from lack of use. He and his ministers have sought to blindside us with the simplistic slogan that we must balance heritage preservation with progress. It is a meaningless principle designed to deceive, because the administration has not told us what scale it will use to balance the two, just as it hasn't told us how it intends to find out if 60 per cent of the public supports democracy. Principles and promises are not enough. The people want proof.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster. firstname.lastname@example.org