Gesture politics gets Hong Kong nowhere

Philip Bowring calls on legislators to go beyond opposition to the government for its own sake and offer constructive proposals to solve Hong Kong's myriad problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 3:35am

Politics in Hong Kong has become depressing just when a new administration needs all the support it can muster for doing what is right, and all the constructive opposition when it is not. Opposition gestures devoid of positive demands are tedious and bring representative government into disrepute.

The filibuster by "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung and others against the government's means-test proposal for old-age benefits was a classic self-centred and ultimately meaningless protest. It also showed how little the radicals seem to understand the reasons old-age poverty is far from universal. The other side of the coin of young couples being priced out of the home market is the 60-and-over group who bought property 30 to 40 years ago, and are now sitting on massive capital profits. The New Territories has a vast indigenous class raking in billions every year in rent from their multiple "family" homes.

The filibuster induced the government to resort to a piece of legislative trickery, withdrawing the request and attaching it to the forthcoming budget. This is likely to be the thin end of the wedge to force through all kinds of dubious expenditure on projects favoured by insider groups, and generally undermine the role of the Legislative Council and its finance committee in scrutinising spending. One wonders whether either party in this case considered the longer-term consequences.

Likewise, I suspect the public is tired of gesture politics such as calls for Leung Chun-ying to resign. It is futile, and there is no need to emphasise his failings. The public is well aware of the illegal structures issue - and may be bored of it by now, knowing that whatever the specifics, it is scarcely of the same dimension as Henry Tang Ying-yen's case.

Those who feel strongly about illegal structures should focus on the lawlessness of the New Territories and demand action against the Heung Yee Kuk and the forces of feudalism led by former executive councillor Lau Wong-fat.

Motions of no confidence also smack of gesture politics. While they might give an opportunity to show up Leung's lack of popularity, motions for improvements in specific government policies or performance would make more sense. Likewise, many motions seem more calculated to bring attention to the mover than make actionable proposals.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, using such influence as a minority possesses to influence events positively. For instance, the proposal to expand the role of the Central Policy Unit is quite disturbing given the desire of its head, Shiu Sin-por, to focus on selling policies rather than devising ones to meet medium-to-long-term needs.

But if the government insists on this, how about a proposal for a similar expansion of the Audit Commission? With its limited resources, it does a remarkable job in holding the government to account. Indeed, legislators could well make better use of its reports, which do not just focus on paper clip waste but also on failures to implement important policies. Take its latest report, published in October.

One chapter is a detailed and damning indictment of official failure to address air pollution, forcing the government to admit what everyone knows but was long denied by bureaucrats - that this is a major public health issue. Another two chapters draw attention to the failure of regulation of private hospitals and, worse, the abuse of private treaty land grants by these hospitals. The latter may just be an oversight, but equally may result from cosy relationships between officials and the hospitals' owners.

Doubtless, there are other private treaty transactions worthy of the commission's investigation. Legislators should do much more to follow up on these reports. Often, the government admits an error - but does nothing unless constantly pushed.

Nor can administrative failings simply be put down to insider pressures or Legco politicking. Much is a result of inertia, worse, inertia on the part of senior bureaucrats. Take the appalling environs of Hong Kong's iconic Repulse Bay beach. Half the beachfront is taken up with a hideous glass and concrete building owned by the Emperor group which has been vacant since being completed. It is an eyesore and a barrier to beach access. Why is this still permitted to scar an iconic site popular with tourists?

At the other end of the beach stands a once handsome government-owned building. After an underhand Planning Department move to allow the site to become a boutique hotel was stopped by public outrage several years ago, the building was supposed to have been refurbished and let for restaurant and leisure use. But nothing has been done. Thus, for more than a decade, the only food and beverage outlets on this beach have been some small stands selling fast food and soft drinks. This state of affairs is not the fault of anyone except highly paid civil servants.

Leung of course has to rely on the bureaucracy, which may account for his exaggerated praise of its abilities. But let us hope his ministers have the determination to demand more action from many of them and for legislators to harry them. Democracy is best served when legislators focus as much on the public's practical concerns as on broad policy issues, let alone "Long Hair"-style gestures of frustration.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator