The View

Why Hong Kong’s next chief executive needs to be a governor

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 2016, 10:43pm

The Red Tide rising over Hong Kong is inevitable and unstoppable. The Basic Law is dead – Long Live the Basic Law. The solution to the democratic gridlock is to remove the politics. What Hong Kong needs is a Governor.

Amazingly, when it was last tried, it worked for 155 years with unambiguous success. Under gubernatorial rule, Hong Kong grew from a few thousand fishermen to a global metropolis of 6.4 million people with an economy of US$177 billion in size (remember that we are just one city). It spawned some of the richest men in the world, was hailed as a bastion of free enterprise, and as a place where low taxes and economic prosperity combined. It did this with minuscule crime rate, an obedient police, and an absence of corruption.

In a week of momentous political outcomes, maybe it is time for another. Since 1997, we have grown to a city of 7.4 million people, a GDP of US$274 billion, and income per head of US$38,000, up 40 per cent. Legco fiddles while the people on the streets are revolting. Despite this, Hong Kong’s economy remains remarkably healthy; the civil service is world class, the property market is as buoyant as a bubble, and the big companies trade above the democratic gridlock. The solution is obvious; take the politics away. What Hong Kong needs is a Governor.

The candidates for the next Chief Executive range from those who are so nakedly ambitious that they athletically change horse in mid-gallop, to a stalking horse that stepped up to flush out the usual suspects. Whatever; we know that a pro-Beijing loyalist “elected” by the functional constituencies will get the nod. Any interest in the contentment of the people of Hong Kong is a by-product and of course that will lead to more pepper spray.

Hong Kong is not happy. The Chinese University annual quality of life study scores the lowest since severe acute respiratory syndrome hit the city in 2003. Housing affordability, noise pollution and the loss of freedom of speech score particularly badly. Where discontent leads, it breeds legitimate opposition (refer to America) and pepper spray will follow.

But what the Communist Party in Beijing wants is a happy Hong Kong without local mismanagement over-politicising the city. Under a Governor, the city was a politics-free zone and got on with business. Few in Hong Kong, even the Youngspiration duo, really give a fig about democracy, just as long as they can be confident that Hong Kong’s freedoms will remain undiminished.

For those middle-aged dinosaurs who say that they don’t understand the young millennials who are pushing their freedom rights to the envelope, I will put it into the simplest of terms: They want a guarantee that they can use Facebook – forever.

Any interest in the contentment of the people of Hong Kong is a by-product and of course that will lead to more pepper spray

The ideal gubernatorial candidate might be a Chinese diplomat, with no previous links to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) – perhaps a retiring UN ambassador, or a minister of finance. Everything else in government would be maintained, including Legco, which would go back to being an Urban Council; cleaning the rubbish and building roads. To avoid it looking like the thin edge of the wedge, a Governor would at least have to pay lip service to the ICAC, respect Hong Kong’s free court judgements, and be paid a fat salary by the central government in renminbi. A Governor would be like religion – an opiate for the people.

Reminiscing about the good old days is a like harking back to the days of diphtheria and open sewers – but Hong Kong people haven’t changed; they don’t want to worry about their political future. They want stability to go about their lives, build a career, bring up their families in the faith of their choosing, use a free media to facilitate their business, and be confident that when things go wrong the courts will respect the law and have a sense of fair play. This is not too much to ask.

Some will bluster pompously about the Basic Law but it gave us nearly 20 years good service as a constitutional tool. Hong Kong ultimately will have to rely on its place in a credible China foreign policy to preserve its highly regarded rule of law, land rights, currency, and management of the huge pot of reserves.

Three times China has approved a Chief Executive thought acceptable to the Hong Kong people – and three times their candidate has failed. It’s time to accept that one day we are going to have a Governor. The Last Governor is gone; long live the First Governor!

Richard Harris is an investment manager, writer and broadcaster – and has lived in Hong Kong for nearly half a century.