Hong Kong needs a mayor to lead the city's reinvention

Paul Zimmerman says clear division of labour between our two top officials would address the lack

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 3:46pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 12:53pm

The exhausting distraction of constitutional and political arrangements continues to divert much energy from our senior leadership, and has done so ever since 1982.

This diversion is the reason why many government departments are operating under outdated practices, guidelines and statutes, unable to get the support they need from the top for making changes, as well as the cross-bureau and cross-department coordination that such changes involve.

One solution suggested by many is a division of labour between the chief executive and the chief secretary, not unlike the roles of party secretary and mayor we see in mainland cities.

There is a need for a chief executive who is seen to work hard on implementation of the "one country, two systems" concept.

Like any other city in the world, except for city states like Singapore and Monaco, we have a multilayered government. Many cities have three layers (city, province/state, country). We have only two.

We know everything about the local layer, but we know practically nothing about the operations of the national government in Hong Kong. Who are the employees, what are their titles, mandates, salaries, budgets and tasks?

The Hong Kong community has no insight. This lack of transparency is abnormal and unhealthy.

The conventions covering the relationships (procedures, processes, institutions) between the two layers are immature. In the run-up to the handover and up to 2003, the convention was "hands off". Integration was a banned word.

Till today, when it comes to business and sports, Hong Kong and China are not even two systems, but two separate countries - a fact that is hidden behind a thin smokescreen by the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement propaganda.

When it comes to politics, we are supposed to be one country, a point strongly made with the recent white paper.

And much of every other aspect of the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland is somewhere in between.

The process of dynamic integration - optimising the dials between "one country" and "two systems" for each individual aspect - requires energy, focus and guidance, with extensive deliberation and communication between the community and sovereign powers.

The value gap between Hong Kong and the mainland, and lack of well-tested and mature arrangements, require dedication at least till 2047. And if the job is done well, July 1, 2047 will just be another day.

At the same time, we need to run our city with the same flexibility and bravura as London and New York, constantly reinventing ourselves.

Look at what London did in the run-up to the Olympics - large-scale urban renewal while making the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.

Look, as well, at what Michael Bloomberg did as New York mayor under the World Class Streets initiative and other programmes, reinventing public space, traffic and transport.

Changes like that can only be led by the top and from the top, unshackling every layer of the bureaucracy and motivating government employees, district councillors, and the community to embrace change.

That will take a massive amount of energy and focus - something that clearly requires a mayor.

Both demands are going to be with us for a long time. Can the chief executive do both? The answer is no.

His city-changing policies, including the land supply strategy, are mired in controversy precisely because they lack a vision that the community has embraced. They lack a mayor who is out in the community.

Why is he and not the chief secretary in charge of these tasks? Is a practical division of work possible? Can the chief executive delegate the mayor role to the chief secretary?

We thought this was going to be the case, but then Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was side-tracked when political reform was dumped on her desk.

The chief executive's absenteeism in political reform, while he is clearly the man who should be seen to negotiate the path for Hong Kong between the mainland authorities and local community, is hardly helpful.

Should we institutionalise the two roles? Is it possible for Hong Kong to elect its chief secretary under the Basic Law?

While we ponder these challenges, we, the community, and our local and national governments, need to first of all realise that there are indeed these two separate mammoth tasks which have lacked attention for a long time, and which both now require superheroes to resolve.

Only when we realise and discuss these two openly and transparently can we start to find ways of improving the efficiency of our system of governance.

Paul Zimmerman is a Pok Fu Lam district councillor and CEO of Designing Hong Kong


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