Low expectations may be the key to a happy 2017

Philip Bowring hopes for better times in the coming 12 months after a dismal 2016 for the world and Hong Kong, but points out also that starting with minimal expectations offers greater room for upsides

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 9:56am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 9:56am

Happy 2017 to all. And may it come with fewer unpleasant surprises than 2016. It is difficult to start the year with a sense of optimism, if only because we have yet to find out how damaging the likes of the Trump victory and the Brexit vote prove to be for their nations, their regions and indeed the world. The spectre of global trade disruption is still rising and the sense of insecurity among China’s leaders is no help either.

Even some of the better things that happened in 2016 may yet be undone by a Trump presidency. Obama has left a legacy of long overdue shifts in policies that owed far more to vociferous ethnic domestic interests than to US national interest: the beginnings of rapprochement with Cuba and Iran, and the end of the carte blanche that the US veto had given to the expansion of Israel. All these are soon to be at risk.

Taiwan’s Asian first – electing a woman who is not related to a former leader – is facing huge cross-strait and economic challenges.

Why Malaysian PM Najib Razak is playing the race card

Closer to home, the politics of Malaysia seem destined to get even worse before the nation can rid itself of a prime minister who should have been swept away by the evidence in the 1MDB scandal but hangs on through money power and stirring racial animosities. Thailand has a new king but no path forward. Indonesia is struggling to sustain its secular democratic system as cynical politicians try to exploit Islamist fervour. The Philippines elected a man who gives the appearance of being as accustomed to (prescription) opioids as the thousands of the victims of his anti-illegal drug killing spree.

Watch: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will not seek a second term

Here in Hong Kong, many saw the decision of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying not to seek a second term as a bright spot, a welcome diversion from worries over the possible disbarment of elected pro-democracy legislators. But sometimes it is better to be careful what you wish for. Will replacing the widely disliked Leung actually do more than provide short-term relief?

‘Clash of tai-tais’ expected in Hong Kong leadership contest

Look at the four actual or assumed candidates. Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing is intelligent and amiable but not taken seriously as a candidate. Then there are three who spent most of their lives in the bosom of a complacent bureaucracy whose preference for “consensus” is a cover for lack of ideas or guts.

The best liked, according to surveys, is John Tsang Chun-wah, but Beijing seems reluctant to endorse him. Anyway, his seven years as financial secretary have shown him not only to be a miser but incapable of any significant changes in a tax system whose inadequacies have long been known. Nor has he done anything to ease the grip that conglomerates have on the domestic economy.

The prize for doing little beyond making speeches goes to Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, with a record of four-and-a-half years as chief secretary, following five as secretary for development.

The prize for doing little beyond making speeches goes to Carrie Lam

Someone in charge of administration who cannot fix tunnel tolls or keep Central free of illegal parking, let alone push through policies which would address environmental issues on which Hong Kong is decades behind Singapore, Taipei, Seoul, etc, is not fit to lead. Her years in charge of development saw minimal progress in housing and maximum waste on over-budget infrastructure schemes. Leung’s failures to achieve his early promises are partly her fault. Now, conveniently cleansed of her family’s UK connections, she has also taken on the role of chief groveller to Beijing. That may help her overcome central suspicions of her past, but does nothing to suggest she can heal local divides or move Hong Kong forward.

That leaves the ex-bureaucrat Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, one liked and disliked in equal measure. Her political colours and ambition are well known. Her weakness and her strength is unpredictability. If it is a two-horse race between her and Lam, she would get my (non-existent) vote.

Watch: Regina Ip on her leadership bid

If Hong Kong cannot find a better leader than the above-named, it seems destined not only to remain deeply divided but decline, relative not just to mainland cities but to regional peers, remaining in the grip of bureaucrats and monopolists. I wrote before the handover that the territory might be better off with a chief executive from the mainland, someone with as much political clout in Beijing as the party secretary in Shanghai, un-beholden to local vested interests and determined to make a success of Hong Kong. A Chinese (Chris) Patten?

Can we not find anyone from outside this civil service clique?

That is not possible. But can we not find anyone from outside this civil service clique, a group which has pushed their fellow bureaucrats into many positions which should be held by people with private-sector, risk-taking experience?

If all this sounds very gloomy for the world and Hong Kong, it is in the hope that the outcome may contain pleasant surprises. That the saner voices in Trump’s team will prevail and offer pragmatic conservatism, even if announced in Twitterisms. That the UK will realise that extent of the pain that Brexit will bring. That elections in France and Germany will stem Europe’s tide of xenophobia. That China’s economy will grow slowly but more surely. That a new name become the top contender for Hong Kong’s chief executive. So start the year with minimal expectations and there will surely be some upside surprises.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator