Donald Tsang

Confusion rules

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 March, 2010, 12:00am


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One of the greatest dangers political leaders face is a shifting public mood. It is an elusive thing, like a stealthy enemy. Leaders who are confounded by it soon lose their ability to lead effectively. This causes the public mood to shift even more.

We are seeing that now in Hong Kong. The public mood has become far more complex, making it harder to decipher, and it is constantly shifting in all directions. But we have a government that is unable to keep pace with it or even to understand its complexity. Our leaders rely heavily on opinion polls without reminding themselves that such polls provide only a snapshot of how people feel at a given time. Polls alone cannot measure the public mood. Leaders must also have a nose for it. They must be able to feel it, sense it. Our leaders are no longer sure what the people want. And the people no longer believe the government knows, or can give them, what they want.

Some say Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's lame-duck image is to blame for this disconnect between the government and the people. Tsang himself is fuelling this image of being a fading leader by appearing reluctant to pursue bold, new policies. His inaction has created an image in the public mind that his sun is about to set.

But it is too simplistic to say the people and the government are no longer in sync just because Tsang is on the way out. He still has two more years as chief executive - plenty of time to reconnect with the people if he knew how. Besides, only leaders in true democracies endure a real lame-duck phase, when power slips from them to their elected incoming successors, who can overturn past policies. Hong Kong is run by an unelected leader who heads a bureaucracy with a tendency for continuation rather than change.

The real reason why there is now such a divide between our leaders and the people is simply that the government is past its sell-by date. It is no longer a confident government with fresh ideas and forward-looking policies. The people want change, a new way of doing things, but no longer feel this government can deliver it. This has little to do with Tsang being a lame-duck leader. It has more to do with him not knowing for sure what he should be doing. His administration seems confused by the shifting public mood.

One reason for this is that we have leaders who are too set in their old way of doing things. They are too convinced that their way is the right and only way. That's why they were so shocked when 10,000 young protesters surrounded the Legislative Council building in January to oppose the express railway to Guangzhou. They just couldn't sense the public mood. They've shunned change for so long that they now fear it and no longer even know how to change.

We're seeing that right now with the government resisting public pressure to restart the Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) for middle-class families who cannot afford private-sector flats. Our leaders are scared to death that government involvement in the property market could trigger a collapse, just as it did during Tung Chee-hwa's rule.

But the reason property prices nosedived during Tung's time was that he flooded the market with too many HOS flats. If our leaders understood the public mood, they would know that no one wants a repeat of that. They would know that the people are hurting and angry from being priced out of the property market. They would know that the people want them to learn from Tung's mistake - not by being afraid to build any more HOS flats, but by finding a workable way to build them.

This, however, is not a government that understands the sea change in Hong Kong's public mood. It doesn't know how to befriend public opinion or to help shape it.

This government knows only how to do things its own way until public pressure forces it to change. But, by that time, it has become a hostage to public opinion.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster