Hong Kong housing

One own goal, a bad year for Teresa Cheng, and misses all round: here’s how the Hong Kong government did in 2018

  • Mike Rowse says the administration’s mishandling of the National Party affair, which led to the denial of a visa for a journalist, was notable among its misses
  • Teresa Cheng, who began the year hit by a scandal over unauthorised building works, is now snagged in another over the CY Leung UGL investigation
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 11:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 3:21pm

It is not an easy task to score a government’s overall performance over the course of an entire year. The range of activities is wide. Moreover, in addition to the targets an administration sets for itself, events often arise which are not within its control, so governments are prone to being blown off course. With that caveat, how should we rate the Hong Kong government’s 2018 performance?

We can approach the exercise from three different perspectives – policy, personalities, and overall manner and bearing. Like the three blind men feeling different parts of an elephant, while none would give us a complete picture, taken together, we could still discern some valid truths about the total creature.

On the policy side, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been very clear throughout her term to date that priority is to be accorded to livelihood issues, in particular housing. To her credit, she has held to the course despite pressure from some pro-government voices to dip her toe in the treacherous waters of Article 23 security legislation.

Article 23 would be better than current legal uncertainties in Hong Kong

Unfortunately, lack of new laws in this area, despite the obligation to take action specified in the Basic Law, left the administration defenceless when it came to handling the political pipsqueak Andy Chan Ho-tin and his hot button issue of “independence”.

That is the only explanation I can think of for the absurd overreaction in the way officials dealt with what is essentially a non-issue. Given the ongoing tussle on many fronts between China and the United States, and given the latter’s willingness to fan the independence flames in Taiwan and elsewhere to unsettle Beijing, the local administration probably felt it had no alternative but to strike a tough pose.

The negative impact of banning a prominent international journalist from Hong Kong will reverberate for many years to come in diplomatic and media circles. Our city was even deemed worthy of mention in Time magazine’s Person of the Year cover story on journalists persecuted for standing up for truth. A spectacular own goal if ever there was one.

A noose is strangling Hong Kong freedoms and our leaders should admit it

On housing, Lam was right to say that more land was the only long-term solution, and new land by way of significant reclamation was an essential part of the answer. The advantage of new land is that it comes with no vested interests to battle. The danger for 2019 is that the administration might be tempted to meander down the same populist path as the Task Force on Land Supply, and recommend sacrificing a priceless community asset like the Fanling golf course for the sake of a short-term boost in popularity.

The three officials immediately below chief-executive level have had a mixed year. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has been a steady, if unexciting, pair of hands. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po ditto, and gets a plus rating for steering his budget through smoothly.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah got off to an unfortunate start with controversy about unauthorised building works to her own home. To her now falls the unenviable task of explaining why former chief executive Leung Chun-ying cannot be prosecuted for the HK$50 million he received from an Australian company, UGL, in connection with the purchase by that company of DTZ, a property firm where Leung was a director.

The simple truth is that, at the time the agreement was reached, Leung was not yet the chief executive, and the money was not paid to him to do anything (or refrain from doing anything) in his future capacity. Nor can he be prosecuted as an agent of DTZ because his principal consented in writing to his negotiating the “non-compete” arrangement directly with UGL.

Cheng is going to have to live with the fact that some people hate Leung, and want him prosecuted for something – anything – irrespective of the facts and the law. She will just have to tough it out. Perhaps updating the protocol on when to seek outside legal advice would help a little.

Whisper it softly – Leung Chun-ying may be back in 2022

For the remaining ministers, it’s very much a mixed bag. Some, like Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee continue being quietly competent. Mini-crises, including the world’s first case of hepatitis E caught from a rat, and the flu vaccine that had to be withdrawn, both sparked only briefly, then were done. At the other end of the spectrum is Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan, who still seems completely at sea (sub-standard MTR construction work? He didn’t see the letter). If only Santa had brought him a transport policy…

Finally, there is the matter of impression. Here I think the arch civil servant from Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby, can help us. He told minister Jim Hacker that the purpose of government was stability, keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits, and “still being here tomorrow”.

Lam and her ministers won’t get everything right but we can all rest assured that the administration will still be here tomorrow. And with that confident thought, I wish everyone a very Happy New Year.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]