Hong Kong’s next chief executive must stand up for the people

Kevin Rafferty says the office of Hong Kong’s top leader is the toughest in the world, buffeted by a myriad of conflicting interests, but hopefuls must rise to the challenge or the city risks losing its edge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 6:21pm

There are 10 weeks to go before Hong Kong faces the most critical election in its 20 years as a special administrative region of China, when it chooses a chief executive to succeed Leung Chun-ying.

It is vital that the new leader has integrity as well as imagination, and is prepared to stand up against some dark and dangerous forces, or Hong Kong risks being relegated to a second-tier city in China, offering international shopping, spoilt harbour views and a few disappearing colonial experiences.

Yet, with so little time left, we still do not know the final line-up of candidates. The media, including this newspaper, has been assiduous in speculating about who might run and carrying interviews with those who have put themselves forward. But short interviews do not really allow anyone to assess a candidate, let alone judge how they will perform in the hot seat of power.

It is important to organise proper hustings for the election of Leung’s successor: systematically list the major issues facing Hong Kong; interview candidates at length; publish, compare and contrast their plans; seek expert views on potential black swans that might disrupt and test even the best plans; spark dialogue between candidates and the people at large – all of which will guide the electors to make a more considered choice.

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Am I joking or just being naive? This election is not about popular or even public choice. Barely 1,200 people can vote. The only vote that really counts is that of Xi Jinping (習近平), or the person he designates.

Anyone who has not slept through the past 20 years knows that Beijing is afraid of letting fully fledged democracy loose on its doorstep

Surely we should take with a giant pinch of salt reports suggesting that Beijing is afraid the winning candidate may struggle to get the 700 votes it believes is necessary for the next chief to have the authority to do the job? All it needs is for Xi to whisper who he favours and all but the diehard democrats will lend their support.

Anyone who has not slept through the past 20 years knows that Beijing is afraid of letting fully fledged democracy loose on its doorstep.

With good reason, you might say, given the antics of the pro-democracy gang of children in profaning their oath-taking as elected members of the Legislative Council. But let’s also not forget the bullying of the leading so-called pro-establishment figures.

Indeed, democracy itself has come under increasing questioning in its Western homeland, given the savagely flawed versions exhibited in voting in the US and the UK recently, with campaigns full of abuse, lies and half-truths.

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No wonder some political philosophers in the United States have suggested that government and governance are better left to the experts. Jason Brennan, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, argues provocatively in his new book, Against Democracy, that democracy offers a wretched deal, as it leads to the rule of the ignorant and the irrational. He advocates epistocracy, government by the knowledgeable.

It is not true that the people of Hong Kong are not “involved” in this election. They are deeply involved, because whoever is chosen will rule the city for five years – subject to the interventions by Beijing. Yet the people barely have a say.

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The job of chief executive of Hong Kong may be the most difficult in the world, certainly among mayors or governors of major cities, as it entails being squeezed between too many powerful conflicting interests, including the central government; its liaison office in Hong Kong; the myriad squabbling voices of Legco, whose support is needed to get laws passed; business interests used to holding sway; fellow travellers who will stop at little to promote themselves; and, recently, disgruntled pro-democracy campaigners prepared to take their views to the streets.

Hong Kong’s chief executives have faltered, if not failed, in their duties by prioritising ... Beijing and ­placating the liaison office

British colonial governors never had it so tough. London left them to themselves. A Foreign Office minister specifically said that Britain did not interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong (apart from refusing to endorse the death penalty).

Colonial rulers, especially after the 1966 disturbances against ­increases in Star Ferry fares, tried to keep their finger on the popular pulse. Murray MacLehose broadened membership of the executive and legislative councils; Jesuit priest Patrick McGovern, who served on both, chuckled that he could squeeze his scooter between the Rolls-Royce and Mercedes cars at Government House.

Since 1997, chief executives have faltered, if not failed, in their duties to the people of Hong Kong, by prioritising the pursuit of happiness of Beijing and ­placating the liaison office.

Leung Chun-ying did a major disservice to Hong Kong’s autonomy by intervening in the fiasco of the oath-taking by the Youngspiration duo: was he giving the National People’s Congress the idea of pre-emptively interpreting the Basic Law, or responding to suggestions from Beijing? He was helped by the failure of the Legco president, Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, to handle the matter internally. After taking advice from officials, Andrew Leung should have taken charge and told the children to grow up.

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Hong Kong is paying a heavy price for the failure of its leadership and is losing its competitive edge in Greater China.

It’s high time for Hong Kong’s leaders to stand up for the city and tell Xi and Beijing to have more faith in the people of Hong Kong as loyal Chinese. Talk of independence has been inspired by the failure of successive chief executives to meet the aspirations of the local people. Realistically, Hong Kong could only become independent with the blessing of Beijing, or if China fell apart.

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Let’s be positive. It is in the interests of Beijing and Hong Kong that the SAR preserves as much autonomy as possible. Otherwise, Hong Kong risks becoming the same as a middle-tier Chinese city, but worse off because its chief executive has to check in with Beijing for too many routine matters.

Governors of Chinese provinces, mayors of cities, and even local party secretaries only achieve their positions after being tested in the fire and brimstone of Communist Party politics. Hong Kong cannot ­afford to have yet another chief executive shoehorned in.

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It is in the interests of Beijing, as well as Hong Kong, that whoever becomes chief executive is thoroughly questioned and tested on their plan to make Hong Kong a better place to live, and how they will cope with the obvious pressures and those that hit unexpectedly.

Who is going to be brave enough to set up the platform for the candidates to justify themselves to Xi, to the 1,200 or so electors, and to the people of Hong Kong?

Kevin Rafferty is author of City on the Rocks: Hong Kong’s uncertain future