People walk past the Chinese and Hong Kong special administrative region flags outside the government headquarters in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on April 20, 2020. Photo: Bloomberg
Tom Fu
Tom Fu

Hong Kong must not cling to governance structures of the past

  • These challenging times call for a clear-eyed review of the governmental structures and procedures underlying ‘one country, two systems’
  • Hong Kong needs a bolder institutional reform agenda, one placing the people’s interests above bureaucracy and adherence to an obsolete status quo

There is a risk that Hong Kong’s adherence to “one country, two systems” has for too long meant a closed-minded and uncritical approach to governance structures established under British rule. To clarify, I oppose neither love of country nor local authority over local matters and fervently support both.

British rule at times did a lot of good for this city and beyond. However, the future progress of Hong Kong will require government reforms and bold vision.
The colonial government’s interests in establishing the regulatory structure Hong Kong maintains to this day are not necessarily our own. After a quarter of a century, that paradigm is not automatically applicable to our current reality.

Nevertheless, attempts to modernise these legacy institutions are sometimes opposed under the principle of preserving local autonomy. Respect for good traditions is laudable, but it is less so when that deference is self-destructive. When all change is treated as a threat, stagnation is the inevitable result.


What does ‘one country, two systems’ mean?

What does ‘one country, two systems’ mean?
The myopic focus on issues related to the degree and nature of Hong Kong’s autonomy has influenced our government’s reluctance to exercise the powers we do have in dynamic, forward-thinking ways. Our social welfare system, for instance, is unworthy of Hong Kong’s advanced economy.
Despite being an area of undisputed local autonomy, welfare reforms have been repeatedly blocked by vested interest groups, citing arguments grounded in outmoded systems and principles. From unaffordable housing and inadequate maternity leave to the recently scrapped MPF offset mechanism, preserving the status quo has hampered the quality of Hongkongers’ lives while rendering our city less competitive.

In other cases, maintaining this web of legacy regulations harms both residents and business interests via the sheer scale of institutional bureaucracy. Stubborn resistance to change is often defended as ensuring procedural justice and preserving institutions from “outside interference”.

In reality, these arguments merely preserve inefficiency for its own sake. For example, in recent years, we at the Law Society of Hong Kong have overseen the insolvency of law firms that resulted in a large number of homebuyers’ funds being frozen. Under current bankruptcy procedures, however, reimbursing these clients could take years. This is simply too long, especially given how difficult our time really is.

Meanwhile, government services and projects are sometimes hampered by red tape. For instance, the Kau Yi Chau artificial islands project is expected to remain on hold for 30 months pending “specific inspections”, even following the attempted streamlining of related procedures.


Why Carrie Lam’s Lantau land reclamation plan is so controversial

Why Carrie Lam’s Lantau land reclamation plan is so controversial
While environmental and safety standards are important, these and other regulatory hurdles deprive our struggling economy of funds, development and employment opportunities at an inopportune moment. The same debates take place outside Hong Kong, but here there is little understanding or genuine debate of the core issues.

These times call for a clear-eyed review of the governmental structures and procedures underlying one country, two systems. We should collectively move on from the tendency to view every local policy issue through the prism of the mainland’s interests or involvement. In fact, contrary to the beliefs of some, Beijing would like nothing more than for Hong Kong to govern itself effectively and secure its social harmony.

Laws and procedures should be followed but not worshipped. Inherently imperfect, procedural systems are tailored to particular social and historical conditions.

Procedures cannot provide justice unless they are well suited to the task of facilitating the efficient, equitable operation of society, and this requires their periodic pruning and refinement. Mindful legislative and procedural change, combined with capable incoming leadership and enhanced mutual trust, can foster more effective governance and social cohesion in Hong Kong. This continuing evolution and development serves the interests of all Hong Kong residents and should be embraced.

Effective reform requires developing a comprehensive governmental vision capable of serving the people and fostering shared regional prosperity. We must avoid knee-jerk labelling of procedural improvement as “interference”, only to justify perpetuating outmoded bureaucratic and procedural systems unsuited to Hong Kong’s future.

Let us instead develop and implement a bolder institutional reform agenda, one placing the interests of Hongkongers above bureaucratic intransigence and rigid adherence to a long obsolete status quo. Before we delve into how our government should change, however, we would do well to remember why our system exists in the first place and what its true purpose is.

Tom Fu is a partner and Beijing representative of an international law firm