Posted:  Oct. 9, 2012

 

Pity the poor Chief Executive.  Leung Chun-ying’s candidacy was born in controversy; his March 25 selection victory was marred by abstentions within the Election Committee establishment where many regarded him as a usurper; and demands for his impeachment began even before he had taken the oath of office on July First when tens of thousands took to the streets carrying all manner of rude signs and slogans.  He nevertheless predicted he would overcome all obstacles and survive to serve a second term.  Others were betting he would not make it through his first 100 days.

Leung’s number one problem, say the critics, is integrity.  His word cannot be trusted.  Supporters of the already anointed successor Henry Tang resented Leung’s ambitious campaign to displace him by appealing over their heads to address the public’s long-standing concerns about poverty and social inequality.   Cynics said it was just a ploy compounded by the still unexplained leak of the blueprints for his rival’s illegal basement that ended his candidacy.

The wider public did and still does give Leung credit for his concerns about the well-being of the greatest number.  A late September opinion poll conducted for Ming Pao Daily on confidence in Leung’s ability to reduce the wealth gap found a 23% drop since his Inauguration Day, July First.  But 20% had greater confidence and 45% remained unchanged (Oct. 9).  That was not all the public’s only concern, however, and after considering his resume more carefully the voices of dissent grew louder.  He could not ally suspicions that he must be an underground (unacknowledged) communist party member because his repeated denials were not believed.

The suspicions then gave way to a growing realization that it didn’t really matter. Not that being a party member didn’t matter but that he would behave no differently in any case.  He was so completely at ease with mainland ways that unlike his predecessors he did not even sense the need for discretion when associating with Beijing’s local representatives at the Central Liaison Office.  He seemed as tone deaf as they to Hong Kong’s worry about the erosion of its promised political autonomy within the “one-country, two-systems” formula that was supposed to guarantee an unchanged way of life for 50 years.

These impressions were reinforced when, nearing the end of his first conflict-ridden 100 days in office, he declared not that he had been on a steep learning curve but that the learning was for Hong Kong to do.  Integration with the mainland, he said in his October First National Day speech, is  “inevitable and necessary” because Hong Kong’s growth and prosperity depend on it …  and so does the solution of Hong Kong’s long-term social problems like housing and poverty.

He had said the same thing many times before his March selection.  But now he is reasserting his intentions in the face of constant protest over the immediate disruptive consequences of such integration.  He said he would seek to manage and moderate those consequences in accordance with Hong Kong’s “capacity” to absorb the impact.  But what concerns the loudest dissenters most is the political threat to Hong Kong’s autonomous rights and freedoms and about these CY Leung still had nothing to say (Wen Wei Po, Oct. 2).

Within hours of his October First remarks a bad accident in the harbor marred the day’s festivities.  It also provided the occasion for the first ever public appearance by a mainland official from the Central Liaison Office at a purely local event of this kind.  Both Leung and deputy liaison office director Li Gang rushed to Queen Mary Hospital where the dead and injured were first taken.  Two ferries collided and one sank immediately killing 39 people and injuring over 100.

The two men stood side by side and both spoke at an impromptu hospital press conference with Li Gang taking the lead.  They have also remained equally unconcerned about local reactions to their appearance together at such a sensitive time and place.  Neither mainlanders nor mainland vessels were involved in the accident and until now mainland officials have remained behind the scenes, leaving direct participation in local government and administration to local people.

INTEGRITY

           The underlying details that kept the integrity issue alive all summer would scarcely merit mention anywhere else, but the public is now focused on this question as never before.  It began during the selection campaign when someone in the government (presumably among Henry Tang’s supporters) leaked details of a decade-old conflict-of-interest declaration that CY Leung had failed to make when designs for a major development project were under consideration. This lapse was never adequately explained but Leung managed to talk his way out of the accusation.   Then there were the leaked blueprints for Henry Tang’s illegal underground basement that proved his undoing. The leakers were never identified but who would be in a better position to have access to such blueprints than CY Leung’s fellow property surveyors?

Also not known are those (besides Ming Pao Daily’s diligent reporters, June 21-27) who revealed that CY Leung himself had unauthorized structures on his properties. They were of little consequence:  a grape trellis, driveway canopy, and so on … the sort of additions that raise questions about the need to update Hong Kong’s arcane illegal structures regulations.  But that was not the point:  the point was that he “lied.”   Responding to the revelations, he tried to talk his way out of them saying he did not know they were illegal and so on.  This earned him thousands of full-page broad-sheet Pinocchio posters courtesy of Apple Daily … its contribution to the July First anniversary protest march.

So much was made of this issue that ex-Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho actually took it to court.  He argued that Leung’s candidacy should be retroactively declared invalid, based on Hong Kong’s strict election campaign regulations against misrepresentation … because he had lied about the presence of six unauthorized structures on his properties.  Since Ho himself had been a candidate the court humored him and agreed to consider his petition, although he submitted it months after the deadline for such a challenge had passed.

Ho’s petition has just been rejected on grounds that Leung never addressed this particular point after formally declaring his candidacy in November 2011.  The damage was done, however, and the charge of hypocrisy fully aired.  Leung had issued his denials in response to media questions both before and after he became a candidate, and as such he had not hesitated to criticize Henry Tang for his illegal basement.

CREDIBILITY

          Nor was the issue confined to Leung himself.  Official appointments added to questions about his character and political judgment.  Mak Chai-kwong, a career civil servant whom Leung called out of retirement to serve as his Secretary for Development, lasted just 12 days on the job after being sworn in on July First.  Only then was Mak’s record of deception discovered involving his earlier manipulation of the civil service housing allowance.  He is now under arrest and could face jail time if convicted.

Within a month, Mak’s replacement, Paul Chan Mo-po, was also embroiled in scandal this one involving illegally subdivided cubicle apartments initially owned by him and his wife in the 1990s.  His tongue-twisting explanations concerned the definition of (illegal) subdivisions and (legal) partitions, as well as her present association with the properties.  He claimed to have no knowledge of their current state or status and no one wanted to claim responsibility for the slum-landlord image such arrangements evoke.  As Minister for Development one of his responsibilities is supposed to be the eradication of this long-standing blight on Hong Kong’s living environment.  The couple’s association with the properties remains murky and calls for his resignation were rebuffed.

A much bigger blow to the image CY Leung tried to project as a can-do fast-off-the-mark leader was the fate of his big government restructuring plan.  He had wanted to add two new deputy ministers at the top of Hong Kong’s bureaucratic hierarchy to coordinate work (Paul Chan Mo-po had been tagged to fill one of these posts), plus two new departments or ministries (one for culture, another for information technology), and beneath them a host of new political assistant positions up from the present nine to 40.  These last, he said, were needed to achieve his community outreach goals (May 14 post).    He also wanted the entire line-up in place by Inauguration Day, July First.

His preparatory team lobbied hard but the plan needed legislators’ approval and their end-of-session timetable last June had been disrupted by the filibuster to save by-elections (May 28 post).  In a surprise rebuff on June 21, the motion to fast-track his plan failed by just one vote.  Several pro-establishment legislators were responsible either as no-shows or opponents.  But pan-democrats who drove the opposition, and others, argued that he had never adequately explained why HK$ 73 million should be spent annually on more additions to Hong Kong bloated bureaucracy.  In particular, he failed to explain how the new political-assistant substratum would earn its keep.

The practice of adding politically appointed layers of officials, called the accountability system, was introduced by Hong Kong’s first post-1997 chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, in 2002.  The purpose was to counteract alleged obstruction by the existing colonial-trained civil service and bring government closer to the people governed.  His successor, Donald Tsang, expanded the appointments by adding under-secretaries to the topmost secretary or ministerial level, and by adding nine political assistants to help with lobbying legislators and public outreach.  The assistants by common agreement are over-paid and under-worked.  No one is clear about what most of them do or how they spend their days.

The Chief Executive has yet to admit defeat for his pet project … perhaps because he is waiting for a second chance.  He has delayed his first policy address until next January, from the traditional opening of the legislative year in mid-October.  As it happens, his mentor Tung Chee-hwa also changed his annual address to the Legislative Council from October to January … which aligned it with the mainland calendar for provincial people’s congress meetings.

POLITICAL INCOMPETENCE

            Among Leung’s top appointees, however, the worst by far in terms of actual on-the-job performance has been Education Minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim.  His response to the public outcry over a proposed new compulsory mainland-style political education course for all students epitomizes the new team’s tone-deaf approach to all such political pressures.  Ng did initially say a teachers’ reference guidebook lauding the one-party “China Model” was inappropriate.  But after that, his every response only made matters worse as the administration slowly backtracked in the face of rising public anger (July 31 post).

At first, CY Leung tried palliatives.  He said the new course was already in the pipeline and had to remain.  Then deadlines for introducing the new course were pushed back, materials would be posted online for full public viewing, a committee chaired by 1990s liberal Anna Wu was set up, and finally came the September 8th election-eve announcement that the subject would not be compulsory.  Now the formal curriculum guide has been shelved but schools can still use it if they want.

As for Eddie Ng’s contribution to the uproar, among other things, he said it didn’t matter how many people turned out for the July 29 protest march; the new course would go ahead as planned.  After tens-of-thousands marched that day, he said they were only a minority; otherwise turnout would have been greater.  He therefore concluded that the vast silent majority of Hong Kong’s seven million residents approved (suggesting perhaps why the police routinely underestaimate protest turnouts).  As further proof, he said 18 parents’ groups (organized by the 18 establishment-dominated District Councils) all supported the proposal.

As yet more proof, he claimed a majority of those who responded during the official consultation period last year had no objection to the new course.  Asked to release the submissions, he said privacy concerns prevented it. (The submissions have just been made available to the press and do not support his contention … South China Morning Post, Oct. 5).

Asked how he could persist with the administration’s claim that the purpose of the course was not to brainwash little children but teach them to “think independently,” he replied that in the old days students were taught a “sanitized” version of British history and no one complained.  So he saw no reason why this version of Chinese history should be treated any differently.  He still doesn’t.  He recently blamed the “China Model” reference book, saying that until it began to circulate in early July, everything was on course for a smooth September launch (China Daily, Oct. 9).

MANAGING INTEGRATION:  BORDER CONTROL

         In his October First remarks Leung referred to the growing mainland pressures as a management problem.  With the right leadership, he said again as he has many times before, the resulting disruptive consequences can be finessed.  So far, his managerial skills in this respect have yet to score any clear victories although he is moving to curb some of the most obvious excesses.  But he is also now being tested on yet another front where his initiatives are working to opposite effect.

This issue extends back to the early 1980s when Hong Kong first learned it would be returning to Chinese rule come 1997.  Maps appeared showing Hong Kong integrated with the neighboring cross-border district of Shenzhen.  The maps were quickly disavowed as a local printing error.  But bit-by-bit the land and its inhabitants are mingling and merging, thanks to all sorts of projects that promote the cross-border movement of people, goods, and money.

The most recent addition to this slow-moving beneath-the-political-radar integration is CY Leung’s plan to help solve Hong Kong’s housing problems with an ambitious new-town development project in the northeastern New Territories,  just adjacent to the traditional border.   Before he became Chief Executive, Leung reportedly spoke to the New Territories land owners’ association (known as the Heung Yee Kuk or Rural Consultative Council) saying that his development plans would promote integration.  Now he says integration is not the aim.  But since protestors have only just begun to come out in force on the “Northeastern Front,” this discussion can be continued during his second 100 days.

CY LEUNG AND TUNG CHEE-HWA

           One revealing footnote to Leung’s first 100 days is the re-emergence of Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.  Tung has kept the lowest of profiles since being forced to step down midway through his second term in the wake of massive protests against his administration’s ham-handed 2003 attempt to force through the Article 23 national political security legislation.   He had appointed CY Leung to serve as convener of the Executive Council cabinet and Tung has now come out to state openly that he was a strong backer of CY Leung’s candidacy for Chief Executive.

Tung Chee-hwa has also emerged as a key advisor and confidant of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping … so much so that Tung stepped completely out of character to appear on international television.  During his September 19 CNN interview he disclosed that Vice President Xi had disappeared from public view for several days due to a minor back injury.  Tung also said that for certain the leadership transition was on course as planned and Xi would be named China’s next president latter this year.

Since CY Leung was neither well-liked nor even very well known, people wondered how he could exude so much confidence as he proceeded to challenge the local establishment’s preferred candidate, Henry Tang.  The reasons for Leung’s confidence are now much clearer.  Tung Chee-hwa was assumed to be a Henry Tang supporter when in fact he was not.  Nor was Tung’s high-level influence widely known.  With Tung behind him, and Xi Jinping behind Tung (and with former president and current power-broker Jiang Zemin behind both Tung and Xi), Leung could afford to be confident.

The next challenge for Leung is whether he can move beyond the negative precedent his mentor set.  Tung Chee-hwa is remembered as a kind-hearted businessman who was otherwise totally lacking in the political skills necessary to govern post-colonial Hong Kong.  He may have had Beijing’s ear but he was tone-deaf to Hong Kong’s wider political concerns, and his protégé is now headed down the same path that led to Tung’s downfall.  Leung thinks the bumps and bruises Tung suffered can be avoided with better management and communication.  Like Tung before him, the new Chief Executive seems not to have realized that Hong Kong is no longer a politics-free zone where concerns about rights and freedoms can be ignored while Beijing’s plans for two-systems itnegration work toward their inevitable 2047 conclusion.

 suzpepper@gmail.com

 

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