Leung Chun-ying

Leung's gamble on livelihood issues

Stephen Vines faults the chief executive for ignoring rights concerns

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 January, 2013, 4:41am

On reflection, what is most fascinating about Leung Chun-ying's first policy address is the way in which his thinking mirrors that of the Chinese Communist Party. Some may say this is hardly remarkable and will point to the chief executive's remarks about extending co-operation with the mainland. But this misses the point.

The issue here is the thought processes that drive Leung and his mainland counterparts to focus on economic development and raising living standards, in the hope that this will satisfy the public.

It has long been the party's claim that it is successful because it brought economic prosperity to the nation, and the party's defenders maintain that to do so required a singular focus on the economy. China's lack of civil liberties can, they argue, be left on the back burner because such issues detract from the central aim of improving living standards.

Leung was implicitly making the same argument in his policy address when he focused on livelihood measures and skirted around other areas of public concern. In addition, he put to bed the previously sacred mantra of "positive non-interventionism" in government economic policy.

Authoritarian governments have routinely claimed that their job is to provide prosperity and that the best way of doing this is not to be sidetracked by alleged frivolities such as rule of law and democracy. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, most of their effort was initially focused on reviving the faltering economy and they mocked opponents for questioning their war on democratic freedoms, saying people wanted better living standards, not freedom.

We all know how that ended: much the same disastrous way that other dictators' plans have ended, from Stalin's fatal collectivisation of agriculture in the Soviet Union to the even more devastating economic policies of Mao Zedong during the Great Leap Forward.

Rigid state planning and collectivism has largely gone out of fashion in the world's remaining dictatorships, but the belief that liberty stands in the way of economic progress lingers, not least on the mainland.

Leung is no dictator but his mindset is troubling. In his policy address, he did very little to assure the people of his commitment to further democratic development. As for the key issue of rule of law, this was dealt with in a passing reference.

Most telling was his explanation for not wishing to tackle "the complex" matter of ending discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. He was, he said, too busy tackling core issues to deal with this right now.

Every government has priorities and it makes sense to be clear about them. However, Leung seems not to have noticed that he has a mass of departments simultaneously dealing with all manner of policy matters. Only a government structure devoid of delegation and so incompetent that it can only do one thing at a time hides behind priorities as an excuse for inaction.

Besides anything else, Leung is taking a massive gamble on the notion of "sustained economic growth", which, he freely admitted, is a prerequisite for tackling "housing, poverty, the ageing population, and environmental problems".

Hong Kong's uniquely exposed economy is vulnerable to the great swings in the fortunes of the global economy, particularly the mainland economy that is at best entering a phase of slower growth.

All the eggs in the government's basket are now devoted to delivering better living conditions. A sensible government is rarely so reckless; it will have other ways of making its mark. So a dogged belief that everything revolves around livelihood issues can backfire spectacularly. If it does not, Leung will be a very lucky man.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur