Breaking the vicious cycle of distrust in Hong Kong politics
Joseph Cheng says the political bickering and scandals plaguing Hong Kong are standing in the way of finding solutions to the city's real problems. It's time for all sides to come together, to build trust
In recent months, Hong Kong people have been complaining in unison about local politics as their frustrations boil over. Their dissatisfaction has centred on the Leung Chun-ying administration, but as the scandal over the chief executive's illegal structures continues, they are now worried whether the trusted civil service can remain neutral and effective. The seeming involvement of Buildings Department staff in a cover-up of the chief executive's illegal structures is one obvious example.
The scandals surrounding, and resignations of, several members of Leung's team have given rise to a lot of rumours about quarrels at the top of the government. Hong Kong people naturally worry now whether the administration can get anything done, if it is indeed bogged down by internal divisions. Those who supported Leung's candidacy wanted to see reforms and improvements, yet the chief executive has been forced to back down on even his simple plan for restructuring the government.
There was hope that, following the Legislative Council election in September, the pro-establishment parties would find it easier to act together and support the administration. Hong Kong people are to be disappointed once again. The election of 36 deputies to the National People's Congress remains a competition within the establishment, and the struggle between the Leung camp and Henry Tang Ying-yen's camp continues.
Even the strong bond of the pro-Beijing united front seems to have been eroded. The staunchly pro-Beijing monthly The Mirror severely criticised Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai in its December issue for attacking the chief executive. Cheng Yiu-tong, of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, revealed that members had withdrawn from the federation because they were disappointed by the position of popular legislator Chan Yuen-han on the proposed extra allowance for the elderly.
The pro-democracy camp continues to be plagued by internal arguments and distrust. Its supporters are still demanding that the Democratic Party acknowledge its mistake in reaching agreement with the central government's liaison office on electoral reform, now that the recent Legco election results have proved it was the wrong decision.
The Civic Party has yet to make its own structure more democratic and has been losing members.
In a recent district council by-election in New Territories East, competition between the Democratic Party and the NeoDemocrats delivered the seat to the candidate from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, despite the pro-democracy camp securing two-thirds of the vote.
As usual, it is the moderation and pragmatism of ordinary Hong Kong people that has contributed to political stability by punishing, through public opinion, the parties that were out of line.
But the community cannot be optimistic that the city will improve its international economic competitiveness and come up with effective solutions for its housing and other problems.
All parties have an obligation to help, given the dire situation. Beijing should take the lead by stopping accusations of collusion between external forces, the remnants of British colonialism and the opposition. The leadership's indication that it will treat the contradictions within Hong Kong in a relaxed and flexible manner is probably key in the present circumstances.
These gestures may generate an atmosphere conducive to a meaningful dialogue between the administration and pro-democracy groups. And they may suggest to the establishment that the central government desires political harmony in the special administrative region.
If, however, the pro-Beijing united front speculates that the Chinese authorities want to tighten their control over Hong Kong and exert further pressure on the so-called opposition, the confrontations will only get worse, especially in the coming consultations over the 2017 chief executive election.
The recent controversy over the Central Policy Unit's influence in government appointments to the advisory committee system highlights an important area where the Leung administration can try to secure better trust from the community. It has a chance to make many new appointments to various advisory committees.
If the government can recruit truly representative and competent figures respected in their own fields and by society as a whole, this would demonstrate a sincerity to listen, the first step towards strengthening consultation and avoiding confrontation.
In response to these changes, the pro-democracy groups should naturally seize the opportunity to articulate constructive policy proposals and engage in dialogue, to show their accountability to the electorate.
The chances of starting such a virtuous circle are not high, but Hong Kong must try.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong