Hong Kong’s next chief executive must put their heart and soul into a vision for the city

Regina Ip says our next leader must be judged on the freshness and boldness of their ideas for the city’s progress if we are to begin to heal the divisions and assuage Beijing’s fears

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 December, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 December, 2016, 8:10pm

In the past 20 years, there have been five chief executive elections. With the exception of the election in 2012, despite some semblance of competition, the outcome was a foregone conclusion before the race started. The 2012 election changed the nature of the competition.

As is well known, in 2012, the hotly tipped favourite, Henry Tang Ying-yen, who was the second-in-command in the government prior to the start of his campaign, was upset by Leung Chun-ying. Leung’s determination and the strong campaign he ran changed the outcome.

In sharp contrast to the colonial days, when the decision on who would lead Hong Kong was made in London, the Basic Law, which says that the chief executive “shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally”, gave Hong Kong people a claim to and a much bigger say in who gets to head Hong Kong.

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The 2012 election drove home the reality that, once you have an election, you are bound to have competition, and competition will inevitably breed some division and even acrimony.

The question for Beijing, in light of the new reality, must be how to manage the next chief executive election in 2017 so that a candidate who meets the central government’s requirements would be elected without causing the same amount of bitterness and disunity as we witnessed in the aftermath of the 2012 election. It must also be Beijing’s hope that the next leader would be able to heal the rift in our society and lead the people forward to overcome the many challenges the city faces, as well as support the national interests of the country to which Hong Kong belongs.

Beijing has good reason to be worried about the “manageability” of the 2017 election. Recent referendums and elections in the West not only show surprising outcomes, but also rational, pro-establishment choices swept away by a deluge of anti-establishment anger arising from income stagnation and the widening wealth gap.

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Perhaps it is for these reasons that Beijing has so far taken pains not to drop any hints about its preferred choice. The chief executive race, though slightly behind schedule by past standards, is finally taking shape as more candidates move forward to the centre stage.

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Against this background, it is to be hoped the candidates will be able to enunciate a new vision of Hong Kong. It must be stressed that a “vision” is to be distinguished from a civil servant’s work report – often a tiresome recapitulation of past achievements in self-congratulatory tone, without the ability to point out new directions or put forward fresh responses to entrenched problems.

It needs to be noted that the Oxford dictionary definition of the word “vision”, which originates from the Latin word videre, meaning “to see”, says a vision is “the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom”.

In light of the many political, social and economic problems Hong Kong faces, the next leader must be someone who is not only competent by conventional standards, but also a person with compassion and imagination, a person who can strike a sympathetic chord with the people and work with them to relaunch Hong Kong.

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In the past four years, Hong Kong has witnessed unprecedented conflict and divisions. One cannot simply lay the blame on the inherent contradictions within the concept of “one country, two systems” – the inherent difficulty of managing a lively, vibrant, sometimes irreverent or even rebellious society within a large, authoritarian system. Nor can one seek to heal the rift by simply talking about love or harmony. One needs to identify the sources of the conflict and division, and offer a new way forward in addressing the divisions.

Likewise with the economy. It is not good enough for Hong Kong’s next leader to rest on its laurels and continue trumpeting its economic achievement solely on the basis of its economic freedom accolades. A truly knowledgeable economic leader would know that different schools of economic thinking privilege different growth factors. Some advocate unbridled free markets, as Nobel laureate Milton Friedman did in the last century, making Hong Kong the poster child of his theory.

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Others have identified other pre-eminent sources of growth. Another Nobel Prize winner, Robert Solow, hypothesised as early as in 1956 that four-fifths of the growth in US output per worker was attributable to technical progress. His observations on the importance of technical progress in improving the quality of growth have gained widespread acceptance. As a result, more and more governments today play a more active role in investing and stimulating investment in technology and innovation. The strong emphasis China’s 13th five-year plan places on promoting new, technology-based industries is a case in point.

By comparison, Hong Kong has been living as though it is oblivious to the structural changes occurring around us. We are bound to fail if we continue to be stuck in a time warp, managing Hong Kong in the colonial model, or seeking to drum up poll numbers by public relations gimmicks. It is time for change, and change, we hope, will come with the next election.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Part y. She is expected to announce this week that she will stand in next year’s chief executive election.