Exco member's clueless remarks reflect council's growing irrelevance

Albert Cheng says Cheung Chi-kong's comments on MTR congestion illustrate the government's inability to acknowledge real problems we face

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 3:15am

Executive councillors are supposed to offer insightful advice to the chief executive on crucial policy issues. Their words can shape the future of Hong Kong. However, as far as the public can see, some can't even talk common sense.

In a speech at a seminar organised by the Hong Kong Association for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, Exco member Cheung Chi-kong attributed the cause of congestion on MTR trains to an increase in the workforce. "Everyone has to go to work, that is why so many are stuck on the MTR," he said, claiming that the workforce had increased by more than 100,000 since 2012. He said that those accusing individual mainland visitors of causing the congestion were wrong to have done so.

His observations failed to tally with the fact that over 40 million visitors now come to Hong Kong from across the border each year. Cheung's remarks were rebutted and widely mocked.

As far as the public can see, some Exco members can't even talk common sense

Cheung is executive director of the One Country Two Systems Research Institute, a brainchild of chief executive Leung Chun-ying. After he took the helm in 2012, Leung elevated his long-time protégé to Exco even though Cheung is regarded as a political and intellectual lightweight.

Controversially, Leung also appointed Cheung to the University Grants Committee despite his inexperience in the higher education sector. He was criticised for meddling with academic freedom when he questioned the methodology of the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, which consistently found low support levels for the chief executive. Interestingly, the programme has found that only about half the people polled in regular surveys knew of Cheung.

In the past, only the crème de la crème of Hong Kong society was admitted to the secret chambers of Exco.

In 1997, the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, named 11 non-official members to Exco. Leung has appointed a total of 16 non-official Exco members since 2012; two of them - Franklin Lam Fan-keung and Barry Cheung Chun-yuen - have had to step down in disgrace. Exco members' perceived status has, for the most part, fallen since reunification in 1997.

Cheung's latest verbal blunder has given the public an additional reason to deride the political institution in which he operates. He later admitted that his remarks had been made off the cuff. In an embarrassing U-turn, he said near-full employment was only one reason for MTR congestion, and conceded that mainland visitors also contributed to the crush.

When asked if he would retract his comment, Cheung refused to give a definite reply. Leung also declined to comment on Cheung's insensitive remarks.

The social tension between local residents and mainland visitors is arguably one of the most acute issues that can undermine the long-term development of Hong Kong. The number of mainland visitors is expected to reach 100 million a year by 2020. How a city of seven million can cope with such an influx has become a serious challenge for the authorities.

Instead of acknowledging the problem that vexes commuters on a daily basis, Cheung had the nerve to suggest the government should be applauded for having created jobs.

He also tried to put a spin on other burning social issues. Despite growing social discontent, he insisted that the "one country, two systems" arrangement has been successful. He likened the notion to building a house.

In his view, "one country" is the foundation of the site, while "two systems" is no more than internal decoration. He said that to have a proper foundation is "a matter of life and death" and far more important than how the premises are decorated.

He sought to explain away the problems of poverty and housing by dismissing them as "universal issues" that have little to do with the way Hong Kong has been governed under "one country, two systems."

Former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie also spoke at the forum.

A vice-chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee, Leung said that local activists' pursuit of freedom, democracy and the rule of law was out of a sense of inferiority as mainland China continues to eclipse Hong Kong on the economic and scientific fronts in the international arena.

Like Cheung, Elsie Leung was convinced that any criticism of mainland China and the SAR government was conceived out of ulterior motives.

They simply cannot acknowledge what others have known and experienced - that there are indeed genuine problems of governance both in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

Our chief executive is not known for his open-mindedness. And as advisers like Cheung continue to cosy up to him, everybody else can see there is an emperor without clothes in the making.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk