SCMP Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Eager-to-please Tung strikes out again


Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's recent statements on the Falun Gong spiritual movement and on the proposed rail-fare increases suggest he could be playing a dangerous political game.
In reply to a legislator's question on June 14, Mr Tung proclaimed "after careful consideration" that, while his government was not legislating against Falun Gong, the sect was without doubt an "evil cult". But why did Mr Tung choose to badmouth the sect when his government had already decided to leave it alone, at least for the time being? One obvious answer is he wanted to please Beijing.
Then, last week, Mr Tung called on the two railway companies to take people's hardships into account when considering fare increases. That gesture, naturally appealing to the population as a whole, drew favourable headlines in the press, portraying him as a caring leader of the people. Mr Tung's call was made amid an announcement by veteran unionist Lau Chin-shek that he was staging a 50-hour hunger strike to protest against the proposed fare rises. Even if the Chief Executive's remark didn't actually steal the show from Mr Lau, they clearly overshadowed it somewhat. It was almost as though, at least on this issue, the SAR's top official could be put in the same league as Mr Lau, who has for decades been seen as a stalwart defender of workers' and grassroots' welfare.
Mr Tung is trying to create a win-win situation for himself by displaying two-faces. Under the "one-country, two-systems" principle, he has two masters. The "one-country" master is Beijing, while the "two-systems" master is represented by Hong Kong people, and he is trying to serve as mouthpiece of both, albeit on different fronts. With Beijing, ideology and political correctness come first, while with the SAR, it is livelihood matters that are the selling points.
Under existing rules and regulations governing the operations of the Mass Transit and Kowloon and Canton Railway Corporations (MTRC and KCRC), the two companies enjoy the autonomy to raise fares. Although the Executive Council can veto such increases, the companies can turn round and ask the Government for compensation for any commercial losses suffered as a result.
Already there have been reports suggesting investors were wary of the Chief Executive's interference in commercial activities in Hong Kong's supposedly free economy.
However, the fact that the KCRC is wholly owned by the Government, which is also still the majority shareholder of the MTRC, makes Mr Tung's public gesture on the issue quite hypocritical. The Government has two senior officials, Transport chief Nicholas Ng Wing-fui and Treasury chief Denise Yue Chung-yee, sitting on the boards of both corporations. So the Government's views could have been channelled to the railway operators via these two, without Mr Tung making a personal performance of it.
If the two railway companies proceed with the fare rise anyway, Mr Tung could lose face, clout and even credibility. If they back down, it could be seen as the companies withdrawing commercial decisions as the result of government pressure. Either way, it won't do Mr Tung much good.
Meanwhile Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who last week told the Foreign Correspondents' Club that Mr Tung's earlier remarks on the Falun Gong were simply applying his boss's "own definition" of evil cults, has since denied he meant to imply that the Chief Executive was just expressing his personal views on the issue. But this could be semantics, since it is unthinkable that the SAR chief could be voicing personal opinions while answering questions in the Legislative Council on domestic Hong Kong issues.
In any case, by categorically branding the Falun Gong an evil cult, Mr Tung has not only made a potentially defamatory comment but also abused the privilege of immunity from legal action that he enjoys while speaking at Legco. And he has exploited the greater weight that is given to his statements when he speaks in the capacity of Hong Kong's Chief Executive.
If the Falun Gong is indeed an evil cult and the Government is not legislating against it, then that should have been enough to cause a public scare. But Hong Kong people have better sense than that - Falun Gong followers have done nothing to warrant such a reaction.
Mr Tung asked the two railway companies to "listen very carefully to the views of the population at large". He should do the same thing when it comes to religion and beliefs.
The pro-Beijing camp has publicly voiced the view that Mr Tung's re-election is not guaranteed. The Chief Executive is now trying too hard. The end result is that, sooner or later, Hong Kong will be viewed as not too different from other major Chinese cities. In other words, it is ruled not by laws and regulations but by a parochial leader who obeys Beijing's dictates.
Claudia Mo is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.