Posted: Jan. 24, 2013
Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive has grown accustomed to telling audiences he knew it was a tough job, if he couldn’t take the heat he would have stayed out of the kitchen, that’s the way he likes it, and so on. But considering all that he promised before his election on March 25 last year, and comparing those promises with what he spelled out in his first policy address last week, only one conclusion seems possible: he really did not know just how tough a job it would be. Refusing to admit it only reinforces the case his most ardent critics have built against him on the matter of integrity.
That he really did not know is a more interesting possibility to explore, however, because it suggests he probably suffers from the same political handicap that forced his mentor, Tung Chee-wah, to resign mid-way through his second term of office. Tung was Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive. Having been surrounded by pro-Beijing loyalists and conservatives, and handpicked by them for appointments throughout his political life, Leung like Tung seems not to have appreciated the new political reality of post-colonial Hong Kong. It now has an opposition that cannot be completely discounted, as Beijing has tried its best to do, because the opposition is strong enough to weaken and discredit a chief executive even if it cannot directly remove him. In any event, it’s a lesson that he, like his mentor before him, is being forced to learn the hard way.
Leung Chun-ying’s pre-election promises went though several revisions as do those of most politicians on the campaign trail. But his goals, spelled out in a final 80-page summation manifesto, have not varied and they are what initially attracted a number of grassroots pro-democracy activists to his candidacy. He was and remains committed to populist livelihood issues with the many consequences of Hong Kong’s growing wealth gap foremost among them. His March 2012 manifesto was sweeping and comprehensive in scope, pro-active in design, and far more impressive than that of his chief opponent Henry Tang.* Here at last was someone who actually seemed interested in getting things done.
Housing is currently Hong Kong’s biggest headache. The poorest are still living in bed-space cubicles and sub-divided apartments while the supply of public housing cannot meet a demand made worse by middle-income families unable to afford their own accommodation due to skyrocketing prices … made still worse by new-rich mainlanders investing in high-end properties. Leung promised something for everyone although not necessarily to everyone’s liking. He focused on the thorny matter of land supply for long term planning and short-term use, proposing to open up the closed Hong Kong/mainland border area, resume rural land in the northern suburbs, and coordinate with cross-border projects. On the land thus acquired, he would build more public rental housing, restart the government-subsidized Home Ownership Scheme, increase mortgage interest deductions, and consider imposing restrictions on home purchases by non-Hong Kong residents.
To grow the economy at a faster pace, he promised a new industrial policy, more cross-border initiatives, upgrades for the shipping and financial services industries. Simultaneously, he promised to formulate a population policy that would focus among other things on the needs of an aging society and on the problem of local births to non-local parents, Hong Kong’s version of the “anchor baby” phenomenon. Included would be an assessment of the new minimum wage scheme and labor’s demand for standard working hours. Addressing the problem of poverty more directly, he promised “short, medium, and long-term measures” aimed at its alleviation. He also promised to work toward guaranteeing as soon as possible 15 years free schooling for all, from early childhood through Hong Kong’s recently expanded 12-year school system. Sports, culture, and environmental protection were included as well.
Last but not least, or so those suspicious of his political motives hoped, came his pledges on government administration and the electoral system albeit with far more emphasis on the former than the latter. To help him implement his ambitious agenda he would need a few more posts, top officials to fill them, and lower-ranking appointees as well. The division between career civil servants and the new appointed officials (all a post-1997 addition to Hong Kong’s bureaucratic establishment) would be “properly demarcated” to differentiate between political and administrative responsibilities. He wanted to expand the political accountability component with new “echelons and tiers to encourage young talents to pursue a career in politics through political appointments.”
At the very end of the long list came constitutional development but he did pledge to carry out Beijing’s most recent mandate. This promised universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council by 2017 and 2020, respectively.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Tell-tale indicators of his failure to grasp Hong Kong’s new political reality came soon after Leung’s formal March 25 election, while he was struggling to form his new administration. He was sworn in on July First, but the protests against his pro-Beijing ties and suspected communist party membership had continued non-stop from March 25. Had Leung taken seriously that opposition, he presumably would not have boasted in early June that he aimed to set the world on fire during his “First Hundred Days.” No need to wait for his first policy address in October, he said. The initiatives he was planning to help those most in need would have immediate effect (South China Morning Post, June 7). Two weeks later, Ming Pao Daily did to him what it had done to his opponent during the election campaign by reporting that Leung’s residence, too, had undergone “unauthorized” renovations. He had failed to acknowledge these while accusing Henry Tang of the same transgression during the campaign.
Thereafter, Leung’s first hundred days were filled with nothing but trouble (Oct. 9 post). Tens of thousands marched on Day One calling on him to step down from office just hours after he had formally stepped up. A month later, tens of thousands marched down the same streets again, this time protesting the mandate he had uncritically accepted from his predecessor to introduce the new compulsory national political education course starting in September. His just-appointed Secretary for Education seemed clueless as to what all the fuss was about. The Democratic Party’s then chairman, Albert Ho, went to court in an attempt to have Leung’s election annulled on grounds he had misrepresented himself as a candidate by not acknowledging his unauthorized household renovations. And so it went.
Leung said his agenda could not get off the ground without the new posts and appointments he needed to begin, but these needed Legislative Council approval for the additional budgetary allocations. His intermediaries pleaded with the council, but its calendar had been disrupted by a pan-democrats’ filibuster and the council refused to fast-track his request before the summer recess. At some point during the summer, it became clear that he had shelved his plan for more top-level posts and appointees. Then his office announced that he was also delaying his first policy address to the Legislative Council from October to January. The address is traditionally presented at the start of the council’s legislative year. And then as the scheduled January 16 date approached, just a week after the council’s historic attempt to impeach him, Leung’s officials began the game of “reducing expectations.”
A flashback is in order here because the best indicator of Leung’s failure to grasp Hong Kong’s new political reality had actually appeared some time before, in early 2010, when he was just beginning to advertise his interest in making a run for the top job. One of the ways he did this was by writing many long serious articles for the local Chinese-language press and one of these “policy vision” essays appeared in the Washington, D.C.-based Hong Kong Journal.
As Leung explained it there, the best prescription for Hong Kong’s economic future was economic integration with the mainland. Consequently, he lamented the constraints in moving toward that future, which he blamed on Hong Kongers’ fear of losing their political autonomy. This he dismissed as “paranoid nonsense” and blamed also the Basic Law’s design for hindering the ability of its “supposedly” executive-led government to lead decisively. Hence he also dismissed demands for greater legislative responsibility and wrote that “our society has unnecessarily allowed legislators to insert themselves between government and the Hong Kong people.” As he saw it, “government should engage directly with the people.” **
And that was what he began to do as a candidate … until the protests at his town hall meetings grew so great soon after he won that they had to be discontinued. He knew enough to identify the source of his discomfort. But like his Secretary for Education and Tung Chee-hwa before them, Leung seemed oblivious to public fears about losing rights and freedoms, and the strength of a popular movement trying to defend them.
CHASTENED AND SUBDUED
During the past three years, Leung has learned to express his political views less bluntly. In fact, he scarcely expresses them at all so the extent to which he might have come to appreciate the value of elected representation remains unknown. But events on the ground and in the Legislative Council are at least forcing him to respect the limitations they can impose. The boasting and bravado are gone. Gone too is the promise of initiatives that will take the town by storm and bring speedy relief. Instead, his January 16 policy address was billed as a long-term five-year blueprint that sounded more like an exercise in damage control. His delivery remained confident and the populist vision remained as well, with the same special emphasis on housing and poverty, but the specifics seemed to have melted away. ***
To grow the economy, he fell back on the old Hong Kong government habit of setting up blue-ribbon advisory committees. A new Economic Development Commission and a Financial Services Development Council are tasked with identifying areas for future growth. To tackle the most pressing livelihood issues, he is reviving the Commission on Poverty, tasked to begin its work by establishing a poverty line. A Special Committee on Standard Working Hours will continue studying the problem. On housing, a new Long-Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee is to formulate plans. Meanwhile, Leung set a target of 20,000 new public rental housing units to be built each year … from 2018. The number is up from 15,000 units per year at present and nowhere near enough to meet demand. More than 200,000 households are currently on the waiting list for these public rental units.
Hardly worth the delay from October to January, scoffed his critics. Others took their cue from his title calling his maiden effort pragmatic and modest … and a wise move given his credibility problem. But the fireworks and the final step in the annual policy address ritual are yet to come. So many legislators have signed up to have their say that three days (Jan. 30, 31, Feb. 1) have been reserved on the Legislative Council’s calendar for the “motion-of-thanks” debate. Legislators will then talk for hours before giving his address a final thumbs up or down. Pan-democrats have already declared their intention to tell him “no thanks” … (to be continued).
* C.Y. Leung, Manifesto for the Chief Executive Election 2012 (March 2012): www.ceo.gov.hk/eng/pdf/manifesto.pdf
** Leung Chun-ying, “Does Hong Kong Have the Policy Vision Needed for the Coming Years?,” Hong Kong Journal, Jan. 1, 2010: http://www.hkjournal.org/archive/2010_spring/1.htm
*** The 2013 Policy Address: Seek Change, Maintain Stability, Serve the People with Pragmatism: http://www.policyaddress.gov.hk/2013/eng/index.html