Hong Kong chief executives must learn to cultivate political allies, and avoid becoming liabilities

Alice Wu says with the office barred from party affiliation, the city’s leader must work doubly hard to win legislators’ support. The fact cooperation is lacking cannot be blamed on popularly elected lawmakers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 10:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2016, 10:02am

“For the interests of Hongkongers,” former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said at a luncheon organised by his think tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation, “both the SAR government and political parties should take an extra step in whatever they are doing … [to] work together to get back to the right track… [so] Hong Kong can resolve livelihood problems and overcome political difficulties.”

Tung says the government should build a closer partnership with the pro-establishment camp, allowing it to play a bigger role in policymaking, and that it should respond to the opposition camp by improving its communication with the public. Tung’s advice for the government is well intended, though hardly extraordinary. Including more parties in formulating policies should be a no-brainer. It’s not a “privilege”, or something to “award” to the pro-establishment camp. If the opposition were included in the process, it may provide the “constructive path” Tung urged opposition parties to take.

It’s hard to believe it finally dawned on Tung that he and other chief executives have not been able to carry out their constitutional duty to “executively lead”. He blames the system for governance failures. That’s not news, either. The politically straightjacketed office of the chief executive – one that disallows party affiliation – makes getting support difficult, and is all the more reason to include all political parties in policymaking.

Why Hong Kong’s leaders are shackled by the system

Most shocking perhaps is Tung’s assertion that “the problem is the chief executive does not lead any political parties, while the lawmakers are popularly elected”. He’s right in saying that as long as the chief executive is not popularly elected, while lawmakers are, we will run into problems. The reason is obvious: the mandate gap. But, again, we already knew that. Where Tung is wrong is in his view that popularly elected lawmakers, who “represent different interests groups and have thus constantly run into disputes with one another and the SAR government” are the problem. They aren’t; that is the essence and business of politics.

Politics isn’t the problem. It is delusional to think we can do away with competing interests. An effective political leader can see that and see the “job” as aligning different interests and rallying parties behind his or her cause. What are leaders for, if not to envision, motivate, inspire and guide people towards shared goals? That is why, without party membership, building common ground and forming coalitions is crucial for the chief executive.

Why a chief executive who rises above party politics isn’t so bad

No system is without its flaws. The chief executive’s job is not meant to be easy. Tung’s lament on the pro-establishment camp’s interests in garnering votes is hard to understand. It’s not just the pro-establishment camp that needs to consider its voter base. Electoral success is the bread and butter of all popularly elected lawmakers.

Since the handover, the pro-establishment camp has lamented that it’s all guts and no glory for them – meaning the government has taken their support for granted, regardless of whether it meant they would pay at the polls. Tung cannot feign ignorance of this and it’s a bit rich for him to complain. Was he not at the helm when the government became a political liability to “allies” who suffered terrible setbacks?

The pro-establishment camp has been struggling with chief executives becoming political liabilities ever since, and the pan-democrats have been witnesses to the pro-establishment’s demise. That gives them little incentive to cooperate. If chief executives could be political assets for their allies, rather than liabilities, things may work out better for everyone.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA