When it comes to serving the Hong Kong public, being popular is not enough

Regina Ip says Hong Kong must acknowledge the dearth of qualified people willing to enter public service, and that we run the risk of returning radical populists in ballot-box elections

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2016, 12:01pm

At a recent meeting of the Legislative Council House Committee, pro-establishment lawmakers vetoed motions tabled by pan-democrats to invoke Legco’s statutory powers and privileges to investigate the causes and the police’s handling of the Mong Kok riot.

READ MORE: ‘An inquiry into the Mong Kok riot would only create a new battleground’: former Central Policy Unit chief compares Star Ferry and Hong Kong riots

There is no lack of precedent for the government to appoint a high-level committee to investigate the causes of riots in the city. In 1966, after the outbreak of large-scale riots in Kowloon, the colonial administration set up a commission of inquiry headed by the chief justice to establish the facts, and to investigate the causes of the disturbances.

In addition, taken aback by how a five-cent increase in the Star Ferry’s fare triggered such street violence, the administration appointed a working party, headed by two veteran colonial administrators from other dependencies and comprising four other Hong Kong civil servants, to examine whether governance could be improved by the establishment of elected regional councils responsible for local administration.

READ MORE: Beijing studying causes of Mong Kok riot, reveals Hong Kong Legislative Council president

While the pan-democratic legislators of today could be forgiven for seeking statutory powers to undertake investigations, the pro-establishment legislators had sound reasons for opposing their demands. The term of office of the current Legco will expire in a few months. There will not be enough time to start any investigation, even if statutory powers were granted. Judging from past experience, the process is likely to take a few years. Moreover, in the current political climate, elected politicians are far less likely to be able to undertake an impartial investigation than the judges and professional administrators of the bygone, apolitical era.

The shortage of truly public-spirited, qualified and experienced men and women to take part in legislative and political work remains a serious problem

An examination of the 1966 report on the Kowloon disturbances and the report of the working party throws light on the similarities between then and now. The 1966 disturbances broke out against a background of a rapidly rising population, financial turmoil, high unemployment and low public trust. Similarly, the Mong Kok riot was spearheaded by young people, many of whom were unemployed or in low-paid jobs, who were angered by the lack of upward mobility and the yawning wealth gap.

It is noteworthy that, in the study on the possibility of introducing elected local government, Hong Kong-based senior civil servants submitted strong reservations against the idea of carving Hong Kong up into regions administered by elected regional councils. Lack of public interest in elections at that time was cited as one reason. More importantly, as Martin Rowlands, a member of the working party who later became secretary for civil service, pointed out: “We are desperately short of interested, qualified and experienced men and women of the calibre required to run the local administration.”

READ MORE: Hong Kong reform vote debacle highlights lack of political maturity among lawmakers

His views were echoed by other civil servants, including Paul Tsui Ka-cheung, who was the most senior local administrative officer then serving in the colonial administration. Collectively, they expressed strong doubts as to whether popular representation would be successful in bringing forward the best qualified and widely accepted citizens to participate in local administration. They warned that there was a definite risk that “a system based on popular representation as determined by ballot-box elections could quickly become controlled by unscrupulous or corrupt power seekers”.

Fifty years on, the elective principle is now firmly established in Hong Kong. Elections and theatrical demonstrations of anger against the government have become the focus of public attention. Indeed, as Walter Bagehot declared in his 19th-century masterpiece on the English constitution, the political world has eclipsed all other spheres of activity. There is no possibility of turning back the clock. But the shortage of truly public-spirited, qualified and experienced men and women to take part in legislative and political work remains a serious problem.

READ MORE: Rise of radical populism pitting Hongkongers against Hongkongers

Women’s participation in Legco has remained low – at a mere 16 per cent of the total membership of the current term. Pan-democratic legislators clamour for the abolition of functional seats, but directly elected legislators, with few exceptions, show poor understanding of business, commerce and economics. An even more worrying phenomenon is the fact that many of the highest vote-getters have made anti-rich, anti-business and anti-mainland China slogans the central planks of their electoral platform.

READ MORE: Why populist democracy is wrong for Hong Kong

A case in point is Edward Leung Tin-kei, who won 66,524 votes in the recent New Territories East by-election. A philosophy major from the University of Hong Kong, our most prestigious local university, Leung’s poor English has become a laughing stock in the blogosphere. Even more worrying is that a radical leader of a separatist group who is under investigation by the police for alleged involvement in the Mong Kok violence could have garnered such strong support from voters, particularly among younger voters in low-income, public-housing areas.

Democratic supporters could argue that if the people want to be represented by a radical separatist, the will of the people should be respected. But popular elections do not augur well for Hong Kong if ballot-box elections return extremists with little competence who live in a world of make-believe.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Party