Next Hong Kong government must rebuild ties with pan-democrats and young, top adviser says

Executive Council chief Lam Woon-kwong also warns of ‘boring’ leadership contest as candidates are limited in what they can promise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 11:18pm

Restoring a harmonious political atmosphere and resuming dialogue with pan-democrats and young people should be the priority for the next Hong Kong administration, according to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s top adviser.

Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong, who is one of the few liberal-minded advisers to the chief executive, said the next government should not have the mentality of “you’re either with us or against us” when dealing with the pan-democrats.

The retired minister also made a light-hearted comment on the leadership race, saying election debates would be boring if candidates just compared the platforms they were running on, as options for social policies were limited due to the city’s “built-in constraints”.

“Politically, the top priority for the next government is to rebuild its relationship with young people, which has been damaged since the 79-day Occupy protests,” Lam said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “Both sides need to sit down and talk.”

Hong Kong chief executive candidates must all be given a fair chance

“A harmonious political atmosphere is the prerequisite [for] a compromise to relaunch electoral reform,” he added. “Otherwise, it would only reopen old wounds.”

His remarks echoed those of former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, now running for the top job, who said last week that it would be irresponsible for the government to restart the reform process if the political climate remained unchanged from 2014, when the civil disobedience movement which called for greater democracy ended in arrests.

In June 2015, pan-democratic lawmakers opposed the government’s package for electing the city’s leader by universal suffrage. The proposal was based on Beijing’s restrictive framework, under which only two or three hopefuls could run for the post and candidates also had to win majority support from a 1,200-member nominating committee before proceeding to the popular vote.

“The Hong Kong government can only get the central government’s consent for restarting the electoral reform process after it succeeds in forging consensus in society, ” Lam said. “Hong Kong’s constitutional development can only move forward when Beijing considers it in line with its national security and development interests.”

Politics aside, Lam did not expect the election to be exciting when candidates debated policy platforms.

“I’m sure you will be bored to death by the debate. You won’t see significant differences in their election platforms,” he said, noting that all the candidates would put housing at the top of their agendas.

Former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing are also running for chief executive.

Beijing has learned lessons of the past and is playing chief executive election with a poker face

The Exco convenor conceded that it would be more of a popularity contest because a comparison of their platforms would not be of much help.

The veteran official, who has spent four decades in public service, explained that the Hong Kong government was constrained by three conditions: a narrow tax base, the long-standing principle of keeping recurrent expenditure under 20 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product, and the Basic Law principle of “keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenues in drawing up its budget”.

“So Hong Kong cannot go towards socialism. It only has a narrow range of policy options to choose from,” he concluded, adding that he believed it would be difficult for the next three or four administrations to change the rules.

Having said that, he noted that although the next government had to encourage the development of creative and innovation industries to keep the city competitive, doing so did not require a change of the fundamental institutions.

“Hong Kong people are very pragmatic,” he said. “They would like to have more welfare, but they wouldn’t agree to have half of their income charged for tax. All the polls in the past have reflected this mentality.”