Donald Tsang

Basic flaw

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2011, 12:00am


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The turnout for the July 1 march, the biggest in seven years, confirmed opinion polls that show the Hong Kong public is deeply unhappy, a fact reflected in low support ratings for both the chief executive and the Legislative Council.

The sarcastic exchange between Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and legislator Alan Leong Kah-kit during the last Legco session - regarding the public's lack of trust in the chief executive, the legislature and even the media - would be funny if it were not so serious.

In a recent survey by Hong Kong University's public opinion programme, 51 per cent of respondents said they were unhappy with lawmakers - the highest level since polling began in 1998. At the same time, Tsang's support rating, which the programme measures twice a month, hit 46.5 points, his lowest since taking office in 2005. The level of 45 marks is regarded as critical.

Clearly, the electorate is deeply dissatisfied and frustrated. Voters see a government that is seemingly unable to make up its mind on any issue and liable to back down the moment it faces opposition.

They also see legislators who are undisciplined and disrespectful of institutions and who seem bent on obstruction for its own sake and offer no constructive ideas to resolve real problems.

This situation has persisted - indeed, worsened - for 13 years. We all remember that when Tung Chee-hwa first became chief executive, he enjoyed immense popularity. But in the end he was laid low, partly due to outside circumstances such as the Asian financial crisis, partly because of his lack of governmental experience, but mostly because of a dysfunctional system.

Tsang inherited the same system when he became chief executive - a system laid out in the Basic Law, where the legislature is elected in one way or another but where the executive arm of government had no guaranteed legislative support for its policies.

During the colonial period, the executive had few problems obtaining legislative support since legislators were appointed, not elected. But the Basic Law, by stipulating elected legislators while depriving the chief executive of the same legitimacy, made it virtually impossible for the executive arm to govern.

Thus, the root of Hong Kong's problems lies in the unworkable system prescribed by the Basic Law. It makes little difference who the chief executive is - he or she does not have a free hand to govern. Again, it is the Basic Law that stipulates that the chief executive is accountable to both Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.

Immediately after 1997, Beijing exercised self-restraint and had confidence in the chief executive but, in recent years, the central government's interference in Hong Kong affairs has increased. This robs the chief executive of the Hong Kong people's respect and makes his job impossible.

Hong Kong's governance problems reflect the dysfunctional system set out in the Basic Law and the central government's unwillingness to allow the region the autonomy that it is supposed to enjoy.

The cause of Hong Kong's problems does not lie here. It lies in Beijing - and so does the solution.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1