Donald Tsang

Tsang wasted his chance to leave office with a bang

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 October, 2011, 12:00am


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Anyone searching for a perfect example of how not to be an effective leader would have seized on the performance of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Hong Kong's chief executive, when he made his last policy address this week.

Here was an opportunity to depart with dignity, offering some inspiration for the future and something approaching a frank assessment of past performance. Instead, the bureaucrat turned political leader slipped seamlessly back into full bureaucratic mode.

The chance to offer inspiration was squandered in favour of a string of platitudes. Meanwhile, a frank assessment of the record was substituted with a long list of sometimes dubious statistics, and while credit was claimed for producing economic growth, no responsibility for economic decline was acknowledged. Where problems were timorously acknowledged, Tsang proffered that they were incapable of being tackled.

All this from an office holder with, at least on paper, a formidable array of powers. Unlike truly elected leaders, the chief executive can be reasonably sure of pushing through practically any legislation he wants. Yet, here is a leader who prefers decisions to be taken in Beijing and, even when they are not, he desperately strives to second-guess what the big bosses might be thinking and lives in fear of whispers in their ears from members of the business elite.

No one was expecting Tsang to stage stand-up fights with the bosses in Beijing but he would have gained enormous respect as a leader if there was a scintilla of evidence that he had striven to preserve the autonomy given to Hong Kong under the Basic Law, or that local views were ever considered above those of the Chinese Communist Party.

Unsurprisingly, Tsang's popularity has shrunk and then shrunk again. Maybe it is overly cynical to believe that he sought to deflect some of this disapproval by appointing someone as wretchedly unpopular as Stephen Lam Sui-lung to be his No2.

As we brace ourselves in anticipation of the next leader's election, are things likely to improve?

The candidate with a rigged election to lose is Henry Tang Ying-yen, who is busy going round Hong Kong stirring up apathy while declaring he has nothing to say about anything because he is fully occupied listening. Meanwhile, his rival, Leung Chun-ying, is busy trying to convince everyone that he isn't half as bad as some would make him out to be. Yapping on the sidelines is Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the former Legislative Council president, who alternately declares that she is definitely not running for office but then may be prepared to, if - and this is not openly stated - she believes the Mandate of Heaven can be skewed in her direction.

The defenders of the system that produces leaders who obviously lack essential skills have virtually abandoned the thankless task of trumpeting their capabilities. But they believe they have a trump card when questioning the alternative. Who among the democrats, they ask, could lead Hong Kong?

The answer is obvious, under a system that bars popularly elected representatives from gaining high office. However, it is when systems change that leaders emerge from the most unlikely of places, ranging from a shipyard in Gdansk where Lech Walesa worked, to a doctor's clinic in Malaysia where Mahathir Mohamad spent his time.

Hong Kong, Asia's 'world city', languishes under third-rate leadership. It is not that leaders need to posses the charismatic oratory of someone like the late Szeto Wah or even the remarkable popular-touch skills of Chris Patten. That may be too much to ask.

Yet, it is quite possible to gain respect and therefore support for having a clear vision of government and to be seen not only soliciting support for that vision but being smart enough to acknowledge that even opponents have something worth listening to.

A real leader, someone like Nelson Mandela, knew how to do this and ended up earning the grudging respect of his staunchest opponents. Tsang has ended up with a pat on the back from his bosses and a sigh of indifference from the people of Hong Kong.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur