SCMP Saturday, July 1, 2000


Outlook unclear

On the eve of today's third anniversary of the formation of the SAR, a poll conducted by the Democratic Party found that most people feel the previous colonial administration of governor Chris Patten performed better than the current one led by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Indeed, the quality of life has dropped dramatically since Mr Tung began his term three years ago. Incomes have fallen and corporate profits plunged. Unemployment, after rising from just over two per cent to more than six per cent, remains high at 5.1 per cent. Even the air we breathe has gone from bad to worse.

But even if Mr Patten had carried on as governor, he might not have fared any better. Who could have predicted that a region-wide financial crisis would hit Hong Kong so hard just a few months after the handover? As a talented politician, Mr Patten might have performed better at pacifying a groaning public, but he would have been just as powerless as Mr Tung in averting the recession.

Yet Mr Tung's style of leadership has undoubtedly compounded many of the problems of the SAR's early years. For one thing, his lack of political skill may have aggravated the inherent rivalry between the executive and the legislative branches of the executive-led governmental system provided by the Basic Law.

The system is supposed to preserve the strengths of a colonial system in which power was vested in the executive, while giving the legislature a supervisory role. But the introduction of elected legislators, without having a chief executive returned by popular vote, has turned the system into one that pits elected lawmakers against unelected administrators.

Mr Patten has described it as "a recipe for political and administrative gridlock". Only through his mastery of street politics was the governor able to narrowly avoid ugly standoffs with the colonial legislature in his day.

As a less shrewd politician, Mr Tung has run into a brick wall as he tried to push his will through the SAR legislature. The weaknesses of the system were fully exposed in this week's passage of a no-confidence motion on Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, Housing Authority chairwoman, and Director of Housing Tony Miller.

With the Basic Law precluding a revision of the political system before 2007, the SAR can now look forward to seven more bumpy years of politics. Introducing a ministerial government by appointing politicians to head policy bureaus might help turn it into a political one better equipped to deal with a politicised legislature. But unless directly elected, any chief executive would have a hard time establishing legitimacy.

Politics aside, the SAR's future is not necessarily gloomy. Like any political leader, Mr Tung's popularity will probably recover as the economy improves and the people's pain is relieved. Already, consumer spending is rising and exports are growing, although the recovery remains shaky as interest rates are high and likely to go even higher.

Perhaps the most comforting aspect about the SAR so far is that the worst of the pre-handover fears have not materialised. The central Government in Beijing has honoured its promise to avoid overt meddling in Hong Kong's internal affairs under "one country, two systems". Incidents such as the right of abode ruling and the Sally Aw Sian case have raised doubts about the future of the rule of law, but there is no indication that justice is not being dispensed fairly on a daily basis.

Despite stricter laws against demonstrations, there is no lack of people ready and willing to speak out against moves that might undermine the principle of "Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong".

But the jury is still out on whether the SAR will remain a vibrant and robust international financial centre and a cosmopolitan city of global significance. The use of English, which is vital to the community's success as a world player, is evidently on the decline. The education system has failed to produce an adequate supply of quality graduates to meet a growing need for brainpower.

It remains to be seen whether the reforms being launched to invigorate the school system will bear fruit. Just as uncertain are the results of current efforts to clean up the environment so Hong Kong will not choke itself to death.

Thanks to meticulous preparations before the handover, the SAR did not suffer serious birth pangs. But it has had a great many teething problems, and its prognosis for future growth remains a bit unclear. That may be a fair assessment on its third birthday.