SCMP Monday, June 26, 2000


Time to review priorities

With a week to go before the third anniversary of the handover, it is as if everybody is up in arms against the SAR Government headed by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Yesterday saw a wide range of people taking to the streets or holding sit-ins to vent their feelings against what they consider to be ill-conceived policies that hurt them. They included social workers, public doctors, disgruntled home owners, and aggrieved residents of urban slums due for redevelopment. In recent weeks, rallies have also been held by teachers against an English language benchmark test and by public servants against civil service reforms. Ahead of the anniversary today of the National People's Congress' reinterpretation of the Basic Law's right of abode provisions, relatives of those affected by the ruling also staged yet another demonstration.

While protests and demonstrations are very much part of Hong Kong life, what is alarming about the recent rallies is that they involved members of the middle class who are traditionally pillars of social stability. Social workers, public doctors and teachers are quasi-civil servants who earn relatively high and stable salaries paid out of the public purse. With the Government as their ultimate good employer, they have a long history of using industrial action to press their demands. But rarely have they felt dispirited at the same time.

Half of Hong Kong families own their homes, but homeowners do not usually band together to form a coherent lobby. The fact that the Liberal Party was able to mobilise more than 2,000 of them to protest against "negative assets" was both an indication of its organisation skills and the protesters' depth of discontent caused by a 50 per cent plunge in house values since 1997.

If the protests were not enough of a headache for Mr Tung, he was also dealt a blow by the resignation of Rosanna Wong Yick-ming as chairman of the Housing Authority on Saturday. The resignation came in the wake of this week's motion debate in the Legislative Council calling on her and Director of Housing Tony Miller to bear responsibility for a spate of scandals involving public housing. Not even Mr Tung's robust defence of the duo on Friday was enough to avert public demand for someone to be held responsible for the mishaps.

Ms Wong's resignation - the first of a head of a statutory authority - opened a new chapter in Hong Kong's political development. It also highlighted the intensity of a long-simmering standoff between the administration and the legislature that no public relations shows, such as yesterday's friendly football match between officials and legislators, can gloss over. As if to show his dismay at the way he and his trusted lieutenants were treated lately, Mr Tung failed to show up at the function, despite attending similar matches in the past two years. Also absent were most other senior officials in the firing line of legislators.

So what has gone wrong to make officials as well as our usually compliant middle class unhappy? Nobody seems to be able to provide a coherent answer. The Asian financial crisis which triggered off a recession just after the handover was certainly to blame for precipitating one of Hong Kong's worst recessions in decades. It disrupted Mr Tung's grand plan to engineer a soft landing for the bubbling property market and led to a groundswell of discontent that has worked against other much needed reforms. Had the economy remained healthy, it would have been easier for him to deal with the wide range of problems that the departing British administration left unaddressed before the handover.

But inherent weaknesses in Hong Kong's political system must also be responsible for the current malaise. A system which pits a largely elected legislature against an unelected administration is not conducive to consensus building. Unfortunately, the confrontation between the administration and the legislature has also been aggravated on some occasions by official incompetence and legislators' populist appeals.

When even Dr Raymond Wu Wai-yung, a drafter of the Basic Law with conservative political views, agrees that the current political structure no longer meets the needs of society, it is high time it was reviewed.

For Mr Tung, it is also time he reviewed his priorities. No one doubts his determination to make Hong Kong a world-class city with higher standards of living. But it is definitely not in his interests or those of Hong Kong for him to have to fend off simultaneous attacks from so many fronts.