SCMP Sunday, August 13, 2000

Tung tries on strong image for size


There was a long round of applause from the floor as Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa finished his speech to the American Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, the first of a leadership series. Even though there were no new policy initiatives announced, or juicy tit-bits on sensitive topics such as the Robert Chung Ting-yiu inquiry, the beleaguered SAR chief raised fresh hope that he would show the leadership that many feel Hong Kong has been lacking since the handover.

"This Government has, over the past three years, together with the people of Hong Kong, managed a number of great political and economic changes, accomplishing the passage from colonialism to 'one country, two systems' under Chinese sovereignty, from a bubble economy to a solid enterprise. I can assure all of you here today, that the same Government and the same people will be able to accomplish other important and necessary tasks in the future."

Addressing a group of influential business and community leaders, Mr Tung made no attempt to talk down the troubles he faced, particularly over the past two months: "Anyone who has been observing politics in Hong Kong would have been rather despondent." Among the string of incidents, he said, were the "short piles affair", the high-profile march of negative-asset homeowners, the Dr Chung saga, and the arson attack at Immigration Tower. "Today, the seas are certainly a bit rough and winds are sending up white crests here and there, so we move our sails and proceed more carefully. But we are not flustered."

Mr Tung asserted that Hong Kong was in the hands of capable leaders who had the will and vision to lead. Elaborating on what makes a true leader, the former shipping businessman defined leadership qualities as the "capacity and ability to manage change, and to work with and guide others through important changes".

"Changes and reforms are never easy, especially those coming at the turning points of history. But it is precisely in managing such changes of historic dimensions that the mettle of a leader is tested." A leader, he said, needed to have a "clear, solid and well-defined" vision, and a strong team of dedicated executives who shared the same vision. "Next, leader and team must work together to plant the vision and the romance in the hearts and minds of the people, so that they, too, see and espouse the same goals, feel the same enthusiasm and dream the same dreams.

"People may be sceptical about putting in the hard work up front. The solution for that lies in communication, persuasion, and listening to the people. If you explain a task to the people well and let them know the compelling reasons for doing it and their stake in it, win their approval and trust with your sincerity, they will then support you, and together you can accomplish the task."

But while Mr Tung's words sound impressive, there is no denying that a sense of a lack of leadership has presided since Hong Kong people began to run their own affairs.

Mr Tung has been likened more to a kind grandpa than a true leader. Non-official members in the policy-making Executive Council are more a group of part-time advisers than ministers with accountability. The civil service has been the subject of constant criticism for policy blunders, maladministration and inefficiency.

The legislature, less than half of whose members are returned through universal suffrage, has been dismissed more as a talking shop and political circus than an organ with the power of check and balance on the executive branch. At the centre of a series of controversial rulings on right of abode claimants, the independence and authority of the judiciary have been severely undermined. Meanwhile, the media is suffering from a credibility crisis in the wake of the proliferation of sensationalism and a decline in professional standards.

Within society, a feeling of gloom prevails over a wide range of issues, from negative-asset housing to job insecurity, and even the polluted air that people breathe.

Incidents such as the arson attack at Immigration Tower, that has already resulted in the deaths of two people including an outstanding immigration officer, have worsened the mood. Many people have been asking what has gone wrong.

A confidence crisis in the leadership of Mr Tung has become more imminent as his five-year term enters its fourth year. As many analysts indicated, the next 12 months will be crucial in his bid for a second term in 2002. Although it is true that he has the blessing of Beijing leaders, there will be serious consideration for a new face, if Mr Tung loses public trust and support.

Alarm bells rang when opinion polls showed fewer than one-fifth of respondents wanted Mr Tung to govern for another five years, and that more than half were not happy with government performance.

More damaging, perhaps, is the emergence of a trend to ridicule the Chief Executive, as shown in the enthusiastic response to a cartoon book entitled Silly Old Tung. The success of the book has prompted the publication of a sequel entitled Silly Old Man's Wife and the production of a plastic doll model of Mr Tung. Some may dismiss these as commercial gimmicks, but the profound impact on public perception about the Chief Executive as "old and silly" should not be under-estimated. The deeper the perception, the harder it is for Mr Tung and his top aides to regain public support and confidence in their leader.

Mr Tung has seen the need to do more. Over the past few weeks, he has paid more visits to districts, talked to a range of people from the poor to Form Five graduates, and visited victims of the arson attack. As he puts it, "communication, persuasion and listening to the people" is the first step to getting public support.

Mr Tung might say he has already been inviting groups to his office to seek advice, but being seen to be in touch with the people is equally, if not more, important than the substance of the contacts.

In his recent speech, Mr Tung admitted the need to "proceed carefully" with some reforms in the face of strong public discontent. He was adamant that problems did not lie with the direction of reforms and changes, but in the way they were being implemented. Some problems could simply be avoided.

There is some truth in this, but the problems also indicate a lack of good leadership.

The challenge for him in his next Policy Address is to establish new priorities for his policy programme, without compromising his long-term vision for Hong Kong, which has generally been received as the right way forward.

It will be a difficult task that requires calm analysis of policies and pragmatic priority-setting, as well as an honest explanation to the people on the thoughts behind the reforms.

Mr Tung is right to feel confident that people will support a leader if he or she is able to win their approval and trust with sincerity. The success of a leader, however, hinges more on his or her ability to inspire confidence and win the support of the people to work together for the vision shared, goals set and tasks laid down.

This will not be achieved merely through strong rhetoric such as he gave at the business lunch. As he said: "Together, we will make that happen." To make that happen, Mr Tung has yet to show a genuine belief and commitment in the capacity and ability of the people to play their part in the process.

Chris Yeung ( is the Post's Political Editor.