My Take

When the Hong Kong government becomes the problem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 August, 2014, 4:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 2014, 6:47am

People like to talk about "core values" as those which make a society like Hong Kong succeed or different from the mainland. I prefer an uglier phrase: pillar institutions.

During the heyday of the Asian Tigers, people liked to talk smugly about "Asian values" and why they helped create superior productivity and returns for their economies. But critics have long dismissed such talk as vacuous or meaningless. I wonder if a similar argument could be made for "core values", a phrase which makes for good sound bites but is just about as substantial as our polluted air.

Our real problem is not so much the need to preserve and protect our "core values", whatever they are; they mean different things to different people anyway. The real challenge of this generation is to make sure the core institutions that underpin our society adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Democratic reform is not an end in itself but is only meaningful in those institutional contexts. This is what young activists usually don't understand.

People, especially the ruling elite, like to paint successful institutions as products of incredible foresight. In reality, most of our enduring institutions came about as desperate responses to crises. The US dollar peg, surely one of our most successful economic anchors, was created in response to the Hong Kong currency crisis of 1983. We inherited our public housing, education and health care systems and our anti-graft law enforcement from the colonial Brits. I follow the idea of economist and author Leo Goodstadt that they came about not out of enlightened colonialism but as reactions to social and political crises and pressures that had built up since the 1950s and 1960s.

The success of "one country, two systems" and its promise of 50 years without change have become dependent on those pillar institutions. But those same institutions, devised in another century, are proving to be inadequate, and we are doing a very poor job of rebuilding them. A functioning government is one that is capable of running those key institutions, identifying their deficiencies and fixing them.

But with a perfect political storm looming over democratic reform, our government itself has become the problem.