• Sun
  • Dec 21, 2014
  • Updated: 3:08pm
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 3:35am

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


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

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


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This article is now closed to comments

The problem is in the very nature of what it means to be a democrat. This is a group of individuals who have decided that the best way to further their cause of universal suffrage is through being elected to LEGCO and hence enjoying a higher profile. These individuals are too fragmented to put forward alternative policy proposals let alone a manifesto outlining how they feel things should be done. They simply can't get past their major reason for being elected - to argue for universal suffrage. They have become accustomed to simply saying anything they don't like is bad and trying to block it.
LEGCO is actually a mess. On the one hand we have the Democrats and on the other the Do Anything for you Boss? Party (DAB) - one will oppose anything and the other will just follow orders. Do we really need a LEGCO? At the end of the day the CE makes policy and Civil Servants enact it. Save money. When we have universal suffrage then have LEGCO until then stop pretending. Remove the facade! The banana throwing, banner waving buy more shoes we've suddenly run out Party. and the 'I can't think independently, it gives me a headache, who should I vote for boss? Party members' can go out and get a proper job.
Agreed on every point that you mentioned. The highly paid legislators are wasting time and energy on issues irrelevant to the majority of the people while ignoring important livelihood issues, or follow up on the audit commission's reports. The highly paid civil servants not doing their job should be asked to pay back some of their wages, or have their pension reduced.
I couldn't have agreed more those legislators and other members of the public who have been constantly picking on the legal structures issue of CY Leung are wasting their time and energy, as well as the time and energy of the public, in pursuing a course which leads no where! It's pointless to keep pressuring him to admit he has a credibility problem (which may well be indeed true), and keep demanding his resignation while truly understanding this call can NEVER Happen. What's the point?! Instead, they should push him and his administration to do things that are more urgent, more practical and more purposeful, eg housing, the widening gap between the haves and the havenots. I now have the habit of switching off my TV or radio whenever I watch/listen to CY's illegal structure problems. It is sickening, and totally a waste of my time!!
In Hong Kong, we have less people speaks the truth. Thank you!
Yes, you hit the nail on the head.
Legislators should go on to do for what we, the people of Hong Kong, elected them. And we did not elect you for filibustering but for making Hong Kong a better place to live. You shall monitor and support the government doing their job for the benefit of the Hong Kong people with CONSTRUCTIVE opposition.
If we start to dig out all the legislator's failures to comply 100% with the law and any ordinances (whether they makes sense or not ! ) over the last 30 years or so, not many of our legislators would be left (if they walk their own talk demanding CY Leung to step down).
Without digging into Webster but relying on observation from accumulative years of living in many places, practicing politic has many ways. To most people the mention of the word politic would arouse disgust or fear. I suspect politic is just not a subject to be discussed even among your best friends so not to create conflicts unknowingly. The once territory for talking politic that belong to professional politicians and newspapers nowadays have extended to community action group participation or submitting comments that otherwise an ordinary person would keep to be apolitical. I welcome the opportunity of voicing one’s opinion and comment in the public medium especially with the objective in influencing an outcome similarly to that of politic. When one is not a politician or a columnist the least what I can do for the most is sending my comments on all things I have an opinion with to a newspaper. This is my way to deal with poor performance by politicians (civil servants in Hong Kong too), unsatisfactory news and bad opinion by columnists. I believe the consummate art of politic is achieving a goal without creating conflict deservingly.
John Adams
Wow ! Philip - quite a rant
But as usual you are dead on the nail ( I was unaware of the RP thing, not having had the energy to go there for many years, but I can believe it)
In short : you are 100% correct and I support your view ( especially re the stoopid way the radicals behave )


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