It has taken 25 years, but the Hong Kong government has finally found its feet
- Beijing kept its promise to leave Hong Kong’s governance structure unchanged but, by 2002, deep fissures in society had begun to hamper its effectiveness
- The 2019 social unrest hastened the introduction of national security legislation and an electoral system that will ensure the effectiveness of governance going forward
I was at the time a senior directorate officer in the administrative service of the Hong Kong government. To put our minds at ease while serving the new government, officers in our ranks had been given the right of abode in the United Kingdom.
We had been emphatically assured by both governments that the governance structure that had served Hong Kong well so far would continue to do so after the transfer of sovereignty.
And so it did, at least for the first term of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, when the business of administration remained in the safe hands of senior civil servants, whose values and ethics had been largely moulded by their colonial masters throughout their career. The economy bounced back after the Asian financial crisis, defying earlier prognoses of our system collapsing under China’s rule.
Democratisation as a concept is motherhood and apple pie, but when suddenly implanted in Hong Kong’s unique political system, where the executive is beholden to the legislature for funding and legislation but does not have a single seat in that body, it would be a recipe for trouble.
Winning a majority of the popular vote in the Legislative Council but destined constitutionally to be in permanent opposition, the pan-democrats made it their vocation to discredit the establishment, playing on Hongkongers’ innate distrust of the Communist Party of China.
Civil servants had to fight daily battles with opposition politicians at all levels as well as a self-righteous media who, together, persuaded many people in Hong Kong that the Hong Kong government was now a puppet of the central government.
This inevitably affected the Hong Kong government’s standing in the eyes of the public and the effectiveness of government, as civil servants became increasingly cautious and shortsighted out of self-protection.
Under the “one country, two systems” principle, the chief executive was given the herculean task of a double bottom line: to serve the interests of the country and the interests of Hong Kong at the same time, when in reality many in Hong Kong did not think those interests were necessarily the same, or even mutually compatible.
His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, followed an ambivalent path and lost the opportunity to promote a better understanding of mainland China in Hong Kong, allowing hostile biases against the mainland to foment in society.
The ideological divide in Hong Kong society and the mistrust of the Hong Kong government continued to haunt the next two terms of government, making it difficult for the chief executive to forge any consensus on the most important issues facing Hong Kong, like electoral reform and housing.
I have just realised that my British passport has recently expired. I have no intention of renewing it, as any remaining affection I used to have for my previous rulers has also expired.
Raymond Young Lap-moon is a former permanent secretary for home affairs