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Obama v CY Leung: one has a legacy, the other battles the odds for a second chance

Hopes of a meaningful economic upswing in time to earn him a second term of office from 2017 will be a close run thing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 10:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 January, 2016, 3:49pm

Full solar eclipses are not common, but often awesome – not least because of the temporary ability of the moon – such a celestial minnow – to cast us into darkness as it smothers the light from the sun.

But as I sat on Wednesday in the studios of CNBC, awaiting a discussion on Leung Chun-ying’s fourth policy address, I witnessed a fascinating solar eclipse of a political kind: there on one screen was Leung, face to face with a truculent Legislative Council, while on the adjoining screen was US President Barak Obama, tabling his state-of-the-union speech on the floor of the House on Capitol Hill in Washington. Heaven knows when such a political eclipse will ever happen again.

Like Obama, he has been dogged by global recession

Initially, the contrast was comical – as it must surely be to compare the dull, pockmarked moon with the fiery volatile brilliance of the sun. Leung stood tight, wooden, eyes boring down into his text, jabbering in Cantonese at the speed of a horse racing commentator. The Legco auditorium seemed empty and remote. By contrast, Obama engaged eye to eye, talked leisurely and conversationally, to an auditorium crowded to the gunnels, almost like Steve Jobs would do at an Apple gathering. Despite the partisan differences between Republican and Democrat, applause was frequent, loud and sincere. Leung’s audience was stonily silent, except when the usual dial-a-protest pan-democrats leapt to it until they were bundled out of the chamber for the stony silence to return.

But once the comical contrasts had been noted, some unexpected parallels began to gel. Here were two leaders for whom global recession had provided the depressing backdrop to their entire terms of office, with no prospect of relief for the remainder of their terms of office.

Here were two leaders trying almost without hope to make progress on important issues through political systems that were fatally dysfunctional.

Here were two leaders who had battled in vain to reduce partisan fractures across the political firmament. As Obama formally acknowledged: “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency – that the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.” Gosh, how poignantly could Leung have said that. But of course, he would not. Surely one of Beijing’s keenest and most perplexing regrets is that 18 years after the transfer of sovereignty from colonial Britain, the polarisation of Hong Kong politics remains as extreme as it has ever been – that hardly any of the “doubters” and “sceptics” expecting Beijing to trample Hong Kong underfoot after it resumed sovereignty has shifted ground from those original prejudices.

In lines that might have been spoken by either man, Obama lamented: “Democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice or that our political opponents are unpatriotic.”

Leung and his team would do well to think about those “bonds of trust”. The concept is in my view much more helpful than the vain quest for “consensus”. They would also do well to recognise that student activists at the heart of the Occupy movement are no more motivated by malice, nor unpatriotic sentiments, than they themselves are.

As each leader edges towards the end of his term of office, it was Obama who reflected more clearly his frustrations over things not done – though that is perhaps not surprising given that Leung has one more policy address to go before chief executive elections in 2017, and that he clearly has ambitions for re-election in 2017 that would carry him through to 2022. This difference is key. Obama needs now to reconcile himself to the reality that he was the “Great Recession President” – anointed with high ambition just as the post-2008 crash began to bite deepest, with no realistic possibility of an end to recession before his term of office ends. His main legacy may not be what he achieved – but what he prevented as the crash created challenges not witnessed in almost a century.

Obama’s legacy is now all but fixed with the Affordable Care Act, success in getting unemployment down to manageable levels, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership cementing links in the Pacific. He might just sneak through some credible measures curbing the use of guns. This reality perhaps explains why most of his hour-long speech was devoted to a critique of US political system challenges.

Leung’s legacy is not yet set in stone. Like Obama, he has been dogged by global recession, and against this recessionary backdrop has had to wrestle with the awesome centripetal forces of China’s awakening economy – but if he harbours hopes of staying in office to 2022, he must surely harbour hopes that his final years will see an economic upswing that will lift spirits, reduce the xenophobic partisanship of “localist” political forces, and leave him with a creditworthy legacy. That is perhaps why he devoted so much of his mind-numbing two-hour presentation to property, to Hong Kong’s role as the One Belt, One Road “superconnector”, and on innovation.

But if he is wise – or receiving wise counsel – then he will probably realise that hopes of a meaningful economic upswing in time to earn him a second term of office from 2017 will be a close run thing. Just two weeks into the new year, with a horrid stock market start to the year, and anxious indicators from the mainland, all economic indicators are set in a gloomy direction for the coming year. The further horizon also seems littered with Darth Vader forces. Urging the administration out of “procrastination mode” will be no small challenge.

Obama on Wednesday tabled just one truly original idea: his “moon shot” assault on cancer. For Leung, 48 policy address mentions of “One Belt, One Road” make clear where he hopes the original ideas will come from in the coming year. Both are looking skyward for future inspiration. Wednesday’s political “solar eclipse” was perhaps less accidental than I thought.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trading Policy Group

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