Commanding the helm of a small but sophisticated city like Hong Kong is no easy task. Our first post-handover leader could not even make it to the end of his term after a landmark mass protest against his governance in 2003. The scandal surrounding our incoming chief executive is no less troubling. He is battling an integrity crisis over illegal structures at his luxury house even before taking office tomorrow. At the stroke of midnight, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen will finish his seven-year stewardship. That he managed to serve through the term despite mounting opposition in the final days is perhaps an achievement in itself.
Tsang's imprint on the political landscape certainly goes beyond survival. As he steps down today, he leaves behind a profoundly mixed legacy. Succeeding Tung Chee-hwa in 2005 with the slogan 'strong governance', the veteran bureaucrat successfully restored stability and confidence that were badly needed at that time. Having served the government for 45 years, he knows the system and rules inside out. The smooth transition reinforced the belief that civil servants were still the most trusted hands at the helm during troubled times.
Until a few months ago, Tsang would probably have been remembered as a trustworthy and capable leader. Regrettably, recent reports of his lavish business trips and personal dealings with tycoons put his integrity in doubt. Disclosures of the hospitality and favours he accepted, such as rides in private jets and a bargain deal to rent a luxury penthouse in Shenzhen, were shocking. The damage to his personal image and people's confidence in a clean government is incalculable.
Tsang's recent low profile sits oddly with his flamboyant leadership style. This is understandable, given the final chapter of his public career still hinges on the outcome of an ongoing investigation by graft-busters. History might have held him in a different light had he been more vigilant about rubbing shoulders with tycoons. But public judgment on politicians can be merciless. Regardless of the investigation, Tsang is likely to be remembered more for his recent wrongdoings than what he did for the community over nearly half a century. His defence of the Hong Kong dollar against foreign speculators during the Asian financial turmoil in 1998 risks being forgotten in light of his recent blunders.
A fair assessment of Tsang's performance cannot be made without weighing his achievements and inadequacies against the circumstances under which he governed. Both Tsang and Tung faced testing times during financial crises in 1998 and 2008. Tung was further hit by the unprecedented outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003. That, however, does not mean Tsang had an easier job. Politically, Tsang faced a growing clamour for universal suffrage and an increasingly assertive legislature. Economically, the global financial meltdown exposed the vulnerability of our economic fundamentals and underlined the urgent need to diversify. Socially, grievances arising from the widening wealth gap threatened stability.
If figures are of some reference to his performance, Tsang appears to have got the job done. The unemployment rate dropped from 5.7 per cent in June 2005 to 3.2 per cent last month. Fiscal reserves ballooned from HK$288 billion to HK$670 billion, without heavier taxes during that period. Meanwhile, most of the 170 elements of his election platforms are said to have been delivered. There is a timetable for universal suffrage, a minimum wage law was passed and there is stronger awareness of the environment and heritage conservation. Such achievements would be enviable for any leader in the world.
Widening wealth gap
However, a closer look reveals a different picture. Despite pledges to resolve the universal suffrage issue once and for all, the timetable that was secured is not as early as people wanted. The reform package passed in 2010 does not take our political system closer to the goal, and details of the ultimate plan remain unknown. The expansion of the system of political appointments was also heavily criticised.
There is little reassuring, either, on the socio-economic front. Efforts to develop the so-called six new pillar industries have yet to yield significant results. Concerns have been raised that there is growing dependence on the mainland economy. Worryingly, the widening wealth gap has prompted so many relief measures that government handouts have become a legitimate expectation. In the meantime, the overheated property market shows no signs of cooling despite several interventions by the government.
Speaking in his final question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council earlier this month, Tsang said he realised his performance left a lot to be desired. The lesson learned from his private dealings with tycoons has cost him dearly. If Tung was honest but inept, Tsang may appear arrogant and self-assured. His initial popularity and familiarity with the rules made him the ideal successor, but he was a victim of his own strengths. He was often criticised for ignoring public opinion when he was convinced he was acting in Hong Kong's best interests.
Rising from a drug salesman to the city's highest public office, Tsang was once ridiculed for lifting himself to the ranks of great statesmen and politicians. Time will tell whether he will go down in history as one to remember or one to forget.