Hong Kong's system is running on empty

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2012, 12:00am


Our executive-led system of government is cracking. Its inherent limitations and flaws have been exposed by the bruising chief executive race. Its worsening strains have been apparent under the administrations of Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. But deep fissures that have surfaced - first by the divisions among the pan-democrats, now by the acrimonious fights within the pro-business/Beijing camp - have laid bare the crumbling political edifice for all to see. Our hybrid form of government has proved to be unsustainable. The way forward is either greater authoritarianism or full democracy. Hong Kong people must choose.

Our hybrid governing system is not without political genius. It is an amalgamation of British colonialism and a mild form of Asian-style authoritarianism sanctioned by Beijing. It preserves a free market, allows civil society to develop and hands extensive power to the chief executive. Under this system, a Hong Kong citizen today - barring the lack of his right to vote - is as free as anyone living in a full democracy. As the city's mayor, the chief executive leads a government that can supposedly move quickly and make rapid decisions unencumbered by the slow, give-and-take bargaining characteristic of democracy.

In reality, our system is beset by inherent contradictions. An accountable but undemocratic government means it is beholden to every vested interest - a recipe for policy paralysis. A pseudo-representative state cannot preside over a free society indefinitely; one or the other has to give.

Tung thought he had all the power he needed to launch major reforms in key sectors of society. But, from education and property to tax and public health, he quickly ran into brick walls put up by vested interests. His failures made future reforms much more difficult and preordained the return of the status quo under Tsang.

The victory of Leung Chun-ying, with his reputation for authoritarian Machiavellianism, may be forcing Hong Kong finally to make that crucial choice about our political future.