Leung Chun-ying

The C.Y. Leung administration looks depressingly like its predecessors

Stephen Vines says lessons of the past may be lost on C.Y.Leung

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 October, 2012, 1:24am

It is depressing to see successive Hong Kong governments seemingly determined to ignore the basic lesson of successful governance. Former British prime minister Harold Wilson, the ultimate pragmatist, is famous for summing up the lesson in these words: "Politics is the language of priorities."

Wilson's point is that successful governments - regardless of ideology - need to have a clear agenda of priorities. Moreover, these priorities are determined as much by what is desirable as by what can be achieved practically.

In Hong Kong we have governments with no clear ideological standpoint that, in theory, should make them more pragmatic. Alas, "pragmatic" can be replaced by the more accurate term: confused.

Instead of having a clear idea of what needs to be done and how to go about doing it, the grand people in their shiny new offices at Tamar spend their time scurrying around second-guessing what the bosses in Beijing really want and paying careful attention to instructions from the central government's liaison office in Western.

When they're not doing this, they are waylaid by long sessions with tycoons who have precise agendas of their own. And we must not forget the dead hand of the bureaucracy that urges the government to have as quiet a life as possible - no initiative too small to crush is their maxim.

Last and least comes public opinion, which is only really seriously considered when broadcast at full volume, and reaches the streets in the form of mass demonstrations.

A rather vivid example of that came with the national education fiasco. Who could possibly have thought that this was a priority for government action, ahead of tackling poverty, housing, the environment and a list of other truly pressing matters?

Understandably, this was a priority for the ideologues, but a government really concerned about education should surely have been looking first at the shameful neglect of Hong Kong's primary and secondary schools, might be thinking again about the aggressive school closure programme and might even be thinking about some important educational issues concerning children of new mainland immigrants and those from ethnic communities.

And in terms of getting things done, let's look at the way the government is approaching its proposed Old Age Living Allowance. The government deserves some credit for recognising this as a priority issue and it is making some attempt to address it. But there is scope for debate on the level of payments, the qualifications for receiving this allowance and the wider question of whether there should be a universal old-age pension scheme.

Yet Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, the minister responsible for this matter, has smugly told television interviewers that the plan has been set in concrete even before being discussed in the legislature and that there is "no plan B". Well, Mr Cheung, even you should know that all governments need a plan B.

Its absence in this instance shows that although the government has finally recognised the plight of the elderly poor, it is simply not devoting sufficient attention to solving the problem aside from saying that the scheme dreamed up within the bureaucracy is the only one worth thinking about.

Meanwhile, although the government has declared that affordable housing is a priority, it is tying itself in knots trying to address the issue without tackling it at its core. So now we have the suggestion that scrapping long-laid plans for a sports hub at Kai Tak can increase housing supply. The chief executive has promised to "monitor" the housing issue. What he does not say, because the tycoons don't like it, is that he will increase the supply of low-cost homes via the Home Ownership Scheme - the only plan that has proved able to tackle this issue. 

The sense of complacency and arrogance weighs heavily on the formulation of government policy, made all the more bizarre by Leung's semi-policy-address to the Legislative Council, with no discussion permitted. How long this muddle can last is anyone's guess, but the Tung and Tsang administrations showed that "muddle" was their hallmark. And citizens are becoming increasingly unwilling to accept the status quo.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur