Time to rock the boat - Bernard Chan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong has been through a shocking few weeks as the chief executive election campaign degenerated into chaos and mud-slinging. No doubt there will be more damaging allegations. This doesn't bode well.

Past chief executives have shied away from difficult choices. The government has done all the easy things, like big infrastructure projects, and has made improvements in education and welfare policies, consumer protection and various other areas. Leung Chun-ying will have to tackle difficult reform options in areas without a 'consensus'.

What worries me is that, after all the personal fighting, he will have too little credibility to do the job. Some scandals highlighted in the campaign were more serious than others, while some of the smears were more convincing than others. But mud sticks. There will be no honeymoon period. Leung will, quite possibly, have a weaker mandate than his predecessors. He needs a stronger one.

I know mud-flinging is part of democracy. Candidates in American presidential primaries insult each other yet somehow emerge with their reputations intact. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton employed dirty tricks against each other at times, before becoming a winning - and even apparently happy - team as US president and secretary of state.

However, there are major differences. The US electoral system, though perhaps imperfect, is accepted by the people. Ours is not, especially after this campaign. A real competition has forced candidates to focus on public opinion, yet the public does not vote; what is the role of the Election Committee in this situation?

And US culture enjoys a fight and allows everyone to be friends afterwards. Hong Kong has never seen such open bitterness between members of the pro-establishment camp, and it is hard to see how some backing the two main candidates will be able to speak to one another again. Against this backdrop, Leung must either let Hong Kong stagnate, or make some big, controversial decisions. Consider some examples. Housing has become unaffordable for a large part of the population. Even if you can afford to buy, the price will seriously cut your spending power.

As well as hurting buyers, that affects the rest of our economy. But, existing home owners like high prices. Leung needs to decide whether to make real changes to land and related policies to increase affordability - or carry on forcing people to pay very high prices. Either way, he will probably make enemies.

A related area is 'hegemony' of conglomerates and the shortage of economic opportunities for the little guy. Some say this is a free market: we let the fittest succeed, so a few big players and sectors dominate. Others say the economy is concentrated in too few hands because of lack of competition and barriers to market entry. Leung will have to decide whether the tycoons' economic dominance can be justified.

Schooling is increasing the divisions in society. If traditional and Chinese-language education is so good, why do the rich send their children elsewhere - and how come those children get the best jobs?

Leung has to ask whether (to take one specific example) to cease funding the English Schools Foundation or expand it so anyone can attend. Either way, it will be controversial.

So it will be for population policy. On the one hand, we have an ageing population and forecasts of a looming labour shortage. On the other hand, we are in danger of being flooded with the children of mainlanders and Filipino domestic helpers. Leung must decide which of these problems is the real one.

Then we have pollution, pensions, health coverage, tax and many other policy areas in need of reform. We have spent 15 years (plus a decade before 1997) avoiding these issues.

This has suited certain interests, but if Hong Kong is to move forward, we cannot put them on the back-burner any longer. Yet, now, it seems we have a new leader with a damaged reputation and a weak mandate.

Leung has a major uphill struggle ahead if he is to get anything done.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils