PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 2:29pm

Beijing should loosen the reins on Leung administration

Frank Ching says Beijing should give the Leung administration authority to deal with pressing issues such as universal suffrage


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Beijing in 1979 when the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations. Before that, he was with The New York Times in New York for 10 years. After Beijing, he wrote the book Ancestors and later joined the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Tensions are palpably rising in Hong Kong, with simultaneous pro- and anti-Falun Gong protests, pro- and anti-establishment rallies, the emergence of the Silent Majority group to oppose Occupy Central, and the political targeting of police by protesters.

Paradoxically, amid all this, the debate on political reform is moving forward. Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government's liaison office, lunched with pan-democratic legislators and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying discussed constitutional reform with politicians and academics over dinner.

The problem is that none of these players - Zhang, Legco members, democrats and the Hong Kong administration - is in a position to make decisions on universal suffrage. Everyone knows it is Beijing that will call the shots.

For the 2012 Legco election, it was the central government that finally ended the deadlock in the legislature by approving reforms proposed by the Democratic Party. But the fact that then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was so publicly shunted aside on such a key issue cost him tremendous credibility, a blow from which his administration never recovered.

There is a real danger that the same thing will happen to the Leung administration, which has suffered from low public approval since assuming office. From Beijing's standpoint, 2017 is still four years away and there is no urgency to deal with the matter. But in Hong Kong, it is vital that the Leung administration should be seen as acting on the issue, which is affecting its ability to handle other matters. It is not enough for mainland officials to deny rumours that there is a Plan B for a new chief executive.

To prevent a recurrence of what happened to Tsang, it would be wise for the central government to delegate authority to the Leung administration to deal with the universal suffrage issue. Sure, it is a sensitive matter, but the central government really should not be micromanaging issues in its special administrative regions. After all, Leung was elected by the Election Committee and then appointed by the central government.

Beijing should realise that if it doesn't delegate this authority to him, his job of running Hong Kong, difficult as it already is, will become even more so. He will be doubly hobbled, seen as being illegitimate for lacking a public mandate and, at the same time, not being trusted by the central government.

Actually, during his year in office, Leung has already been given authority by Beijing to handle certain matters, including lodging a protest to the Japanese consul general over Diaoyu activists from Hong Kong who were detained by Japan. More recently, Beijing let him handle the Edward Snowden affair, which he did with aplomb.

Since the central government doesn't want to be directly involved in negotiating with various Hong Kong forces - particularly the democrats - the only viable solution is for it to delegate the authority to the Leung administration. That would really be "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong".

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1


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