Posted: Nov. 1, 2010
Hong Kong may not have a democratically-elected government, but in recent years many familiar sights and sounds have taken hold. These date especially from the 1990s when the last British governor, Christopher Patten (1992-1997), introduced among other things parliamentary-style question time in the Legislative Council. Legislators, beginning with the first directly-elected batch in 1991, took themselves very seriously even if then, as now, they enjoyed only limited power within the executive-led system. At one point they even mustered a majority for an unprecedented vote of no-confidence against him.
Since the return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, legislators have turned the executive’s annual policy addresses into occasions for similar symbolic acts of protest in a calculated effort to preserve and protect what few powers the legislature has been granted. The address marks the start of the legislative year when the governor, now chief executive, summarizes achievements and points the way forward. Legislators then debate the details and conclude with a non-binding motion of thanks or no thanks, indicating approval or disapproval of the government’s performance and objectives.
The precedent for registering legislative disapproval was actually set in October 1996 when Patten’s final policy address received colonial Hong Kong’s first ever “no-thanks” vote, 23:22. A no-thanks vote was then recorded five times during the tenure of Patten’s unpopular successor, Tung Chee-hwa (1997-2005). Democratic legislators who instigate these protests had given his successor, Donald Tsang, a mixed report card (three negatives, two positives). But this year they announced in advance that they would vote against the motion if their demands were not met. Equally provocative, as soon as he finished speaking on October 13th, legislators moved a motion on an unrelated substantive matter aimed at overturning one of Tsang’s recent executive orders.
The address took him almost two hours to read; everyone else can now do the same via the government’s website (www.policyaddress.gov.hk/). The title, “Sharing Prosperity for a Caring Society,” might have seemed like a reflection of mainland-style politics-free talking points about well-being and harmony. His predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, moved so far in that direction that he even changed the timing of the address from autumn to spring in order to synchronize with the schedules of provincial people’s congress meetings that precede the annual National People’s Congress sessions in Beijing. But many political changes both symbolic and real followed the huge 2003 protest demonstration against Tung’s attempt to introduce national security legislation as mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. In deference to local resentment over the imposition of mainland ways, he took early retirement and Hong Kong’s policy address returned to its original schedule. More to the point, “sharing and caring” addresses specific local issues that heightened tensions during last year’s political reform controversy. His solutions also provoked a political response that Donald Tsang, unlike his mainland counterparts, cannot totally ignore.
The aim was to defuse dissent but critics were ready within minutes. Having expected few innovations or initiatives, few listeners were surprised to hear none. Said Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho afterward, the only good thing about Donald Tsang’s speech was what he had to say about Article 23 national political security legislation, which his administration had made preparations to reintroduce during the coming year. After calculating the likely costs and benefits of doing so (Aug 30 post), Beijing agreed to a deferral. The legislation has now been put back on the shelf where it will remain at least until 2012 when his term of office ends. This is an important reprieve since it leaves open the possibility that Beijing will have learned to be more tolerant of political dissent in years to come than the draft legislation indicated in 2003.
Otherwise, Hong Kong’s two most immediate concerns are the growing gap between rich and poor, and an overheated property market. Centerpiece of Tsang’s solution for Hong Kong’s cramped overpriced housing stock is a new government sponsored scheme, called “My Home Purchase Plan.” This will allow 5,000 sandwich-class families (earning less than HK$39,000 or US$5,000 per month) to rent a no-frills apartment for up to five years after which they will have the option to buy. He also promises to build more public rental apartments for low-income families, and to allocate more land for private development under Hong Kong’s system of government-controlled land auctions.
Centerpiece of Tsang’s plan to address the wealth gap is a new HK$10 billion Community Care Fund. This is to be a joint public-private venture whereby the government and business community will each contribute $5 billion, to be used for those in need who do not qualify under the government’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme. He was not quite ready to announce the actual level of the new minimum wage that will go into effect next year (Oct. 8 post), and the step beyond that will be a long time coming. This would mean introducing standard working hours and addressing the problem of overtime pay. Tsang proposed only to “study” these questions that employers want to leave pending indefinitely.
Critics could anticipate their talking points in advance based on the lobbying that always precedes policy addresses, but housing was still the biggest disappointment. The new home purchase plan was dismissed as a “drop in the bucket.” Parties across the political spectrum had been demanding a revival of the government-run Home Ownership Scheme (HOS). This was originally intended to encourage home ownership and move upwardly mobile low-income residents out of government-run public rental housing. But the HOS project was abandoned in 2002 to help prop up property prices hard hit by the Asian financial crisis when thousands of home owners suddenly found themselves in negative equity (underwater).
Unwilling to head down that road again, Tsang’s planners devised the new scheme, to be managed at market prices currently at record levels. It will also require a sizeable down payment from would-be buyers who therefore see little benefit in the scheme. Nor did Tsang offer anything more than a token effort to dampen mainland and other speculators’ enthusiasm for Hong Kong properties. “Blame capitalism” not me, he said in response to an interviewer’s critical question afterward.
The real problem, as everyone knows, is a market distorted by the government’s control of land that is auctioned to the highest bidder as a major source of public revenue. The main buyers have been allowed to grow into an oligarchy of about half a dozen property developers, who are able to hoard the land they buy and manipulate the market for their finished products by hoarding as well the housing stock they build on the land. Measures to curb some of the most obvious excesses of this vicious cycle seem to remain forever under “study,” yet another manifestation say detractors of Hong Kong’s distorted political system with its built-in deference to big business.
The Community Care Fund received a somewhat better press but critics inevitably derided the idea as a means of letting the tycoons expiate their sins of indulgence without reforming the system that had allowed them to accumulate so much surplus wealth in the first place. Rather than set up another charity dependent on the business elite’s benevolence, said democratic politicians, Hong Kong would be better off targeting the causes of unequal wealth by rationalizing policies and spending priorities. Nor did all those with the deepest pockets rush to embrace the idea.
Tycoon Li Ka-shing immediately pledged his half-billion share. But Ronnie Chan, an even more outspoken foe of democratic reform, refused to cooperate. The most erudite of Hong Kong’s property magnates, Chan offered instead a lengthy dissertation on “the social responsibility of business” (Ming Pao Daily, Oct. 21, 22). James Tien, a leader of the pro-business Liberal Party, also spoke out against the new fund, calling it an extra tax on real estate developers. He says the government should guard its surpluses and accumulated reserves less jealously, and spend more to alleviate poverty. And for corporate watchdog David Webb’s take on the “Community Collusion Fund,” click http://webb-site.com/articles/ccf.asp
CONFRONTING THE EXECUTIVE
Had it had been some other issue legislators might not have confronted the Chief Executive so directly, but under the circumstances a garbage dump provided the perfect excuse to provoke what was called a “constitutional crisis” over their much-resented limited powers. The issue concerned an executive order that Donald Tsang had signed allowing expansion of a landfill into five hectares (10+ acres) of an adjacent country park. Hong Kong’s scarcity of land being what it is, the park, dumpsite, and a nearby housing development created conflicts of environmental interest that Tsang chose to ignore when he signed the order. By happy coincidence, the landfill expansion was calculated to further reduce property values in the area where residents were already complaining about the stench. This gave democrats some unaccustomed allies in their continuing effort to protect the Legislative Council’s power.
Both sides sought legal advice to different effect. Tsang claimed executive prerogative. Legislators cited a provision in the Country Parks Ordinance requiring boundary maps to be tabled in the council, which Tsang had failed to do. So legislators tabled their own motion as soon as he finished his policy address and then voted immediately to override his executive order expanding the landfill. The motion received near majority support from both sides of the house, that is, directly-elected legislators and their Functional Constituency counterparts. Within hours, Tsang announced that he would respect the verdict on his unpopular dumpsite. Whether legislators have successfully defended their powers, however, depends on whether Tsang also accepts their right to revoke his original order, a formal decision he has yet to announce.
NO THANKS, MR. CHIEF EXECUTIVE
Democratic legislators spelled out their conditions in advance of the three-day October 27-29 motion debate. To earn their thanks, the Chief Executive would have to do more: (1) agree to resume the Home Ownership Scheme; (2) propose more effective anti-poverty measures; and (3) agree to abolish the appointed seats on the 18 District Councils. Their 400+ members are 80% directly-elected and 20% government-appointed conservatives. Abolishing the latter is a demand left over from the political reform saga. Democratic Party leaders have been pilloried, even by their own rank and file, for having abandoned this minimum condition when negotiating their grand compromise last June and the demand was supposed to help clear the air at least on this point.
Ultimately, pan-democrats tabled five amendments to the motion-of-thanks and all were defeated by Functional Constituency legislators. Motions and measures raised by legislators must receive majorities, calculated separately, from each side of the house. The Democratic Party’s attempt to placate its critics on the appointed District Councilors issue was voted down as was another similarly-motivated idea from “moderate” democrats. Some still think they can pressure Beijing by passing a local law that calls for the abolition of Functional Constituencies and election of all legislators by universal suffrage. Proposals on poverty and the HOS also failed and this time democrats did what they said they would. As a result, the original motion was defeated for want of a majority on their side of the house.
Contemplating the fourth motion-of-thanks defeat for Donald Tsang, one pro-Beijing legislator suggested that perhaps the time had come to dispense with this quaint custom inherited from a colonial past when the Legislative Council was appointed and its courtesies were never violated.