A wish list for Hong Kong in 2016 to break the cycle of dysfunction

Zuraidah Ibrahim says the only way to get the city back on its feet is if everyone involved – from the chief executive to his bosses in Beijing and his opponents in Legco – pulls together for the greater good

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 January, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 January, 2016, 10:09am

If you have never observed a Legislative Council meeting, count yourself lucky for not having wasted precious hours of your life. The amount of needless and pointless questioning is of a scale that makes many other problematic parliaments look like well-functioning institutions.

The passage of the copyright bill now before Legco, introduced in June 2014, is one prime example. It is not the only piece of impending legislation from 2014 that has yet to be passed; three others remain stuck before the house, along with 18 others tabled last year. The wrangling over the funding for an IT bureau took over three years before it went through last November. Two controversial additional funding requests, for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the high-speed rail link to Guangdong, will now be before the Finance Committee, with nearly everyone fearing delays.

Thorough scrutiny of any proposed legislation is one of the most important responsibilities of any lawmaker. If a bill has fatal flaws, people count on their representatives to kick it out before it becomes law. Clearly, though, the legislature’s check-and-balance role can also be abused to paralyse government. Lawmakers have the right to use the process whichever way they want, within the rules of the game. But I hope more of them will be guided by their moral responsibility to serve Hong Kong residents, even when it goes against the politicians’ short-term interests.

READ MORE: Childish Hong Kong lawmakers are making a farce of the legislative process

So, looking ahead at the year, this is one wish I have for the city: that Hong Kong lawmakers will have the moral courage to put aside partisan bickering for the larger good. If more funding projects get stalled by unrelenting filibustering, the ultimate losers are residents. Over time, businesses will lose patience, pack up and go elsewhere. Jobs will be lost, opportunities missed.

If the government proposes policies that can bring good to the city, don’t just think about the political mileage you can get out of opposing. The signal from the district council elections is clear: people are tired of polarised politics and entrenched positions. They gravitated instead to fresher candidates with no record of blind partisanship. Such voter sentiments may prevail again at this year’s Legco election.

Politicians who automatically view everything through the pro or anti lens have been warned.

My second wish is for a chief executive who is not afraid to speak, as a wise journalist friend put it, more Hongkongese than Beijingese. When Leung Chun-ying called on Xi Jinping (習近平) last December, the president identified three major tasks for the chief executive: seeking development, ensuring stability and enhancing social harmony in the city. That last target is interesting, because it suggests that even Leung’s boss knows the divisions in Hong Kong society need to be healed.

The mainland’s traditional approach for achieving harmony is, of course, to silence discordant voices, so that everyone seems to be singing the government’s tune. That simply would not work in Hong Kong. Leung needs to find another way, if he is hoping to stay beyond 2017.

READ MORE: Hong Kong faces a bumpy 2016 under Beijing’s tough framework

The problem is that he seems impervious to public opinion, since his mandate comes from outside Hong Kong. But one hopes that he will come to appreciate that he would accomplish more if he paid more attention to his approval ratings.

It should not hurt Beijing to be more responsive to residents’ legitimate desire to preserve their autonomy and way of life

Can he bridge Hong Kong’s political divide completely? Probably not. But at the edges of things, there is much more he can do to reach out. Talking to the young, engaging them in small groups, is one way. Firing non-performers on his team and finding more capable ministers who can make a real difference to governance is another.

My third wish is for Beijing itself to give the city a break. The failure of the electoral reform package means that, come 2017, the chief executive will be chosen in exactly the same manner as in 2012 – by a committee of 1,200 specially appointed nominees. Hongkongers are looking at a future where their government is accountable to them only indirectly, via Beijing. It should not hurt Beijing to be more responsive to residents’ legitimate desire to preserve their autonomy and way of life. It could initiate new dialogues with all sides, including pan-democrats and especially younger representatives of credible movements.

The start of the year has been far from encouraging on this front. The mysterious disappearance of bookseller Lee Bo is traumatising. He is allegedly on the mainland and assisting in investigations, if a letter he purportedly wrote is to be believed. If the mainland authorities were not involved, now is the time to get involved and return the bookseller to his family swiftly, safe and sound.

My three wishes are interrelated. Legco isn’t going to get less polarised as long as the chief executive is not more accommodating, and vice versa. The chief executive is not going to listen more to Hongkongers’ voices as long as Beijing doesn’t value what is special about this place. And Hong Kong will be less special if its government fails to act in a visionary and responsive manner.

The current dysfunction is a vicious cycle that is hard to break. It’s a new year. We can dream.
Zuraidah Ibrahim is chief news editor @zuibrahim