SCMP Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Once is enough


Hong Kong is not a city of revolutionaries. It is a land of immigrants and refugees, thus the political culture is conservative and moderate. However, in recent months, the public mood has been radicalised because more and more people are fed up with the administration of the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa.
In the past few years, the economy has been buffeted by the Asian financial turmoil. The situation was further aggravated by the terrorist attacks in America on September 11. Unemployment continues to rise and the outlook for the future is grim. Consequently, Hong Kong is faced with an economic as well as a confidence crisis.
Many people have told me they are in despair and they think the Chief Executive should be held responsible for Hong Kong's plight. As Mr Tung enters the final months of his five-year term, many people are concerned that having tasted power, he may want to seek a second term. If so, that would spell disaster for Hong Kong.
Responding to public demands, more than 30 organisations, including The Frontier, got together to form the Coalition Against Second Term (Cast). We held our inaugural news conference on Sunday and declared our objective: we do not want Mr Tung to be the Hong Kong SAR's second Chief Executive. Like many people, we have had enough.
Most of the founding members of Cast belong to the pro-democracy lobby which has long fought for a democratically elected government. However many more people will support the coalition simply out of the desire to see the back of Mr Tung. Some people are so agitated that they want the Chief Executive to step down immediately.
Given Mr Tung's unpopularity, more groups are expected to be formed to oppose him. Some commentators have expressed surprise that we have waited so long. Others said the unprecedented level of public discontent is explosive and must be addressed.
People from all walks of life are united by the belief that Mr Tung is an inept leader who is prone to cronyism and has little respect for the rule of law, as demonstrated by the decision not to prosecute publisher Sally Aw Sian over a newspaper circulation scandal and to seek a re-interpretation of the Basic Law by Beijing to overturn the verdict of the Court of Final Appeal in a right-of-abode case.
Several months before the change of sovereignty in July 1997, Mr Tung was picked by a committee of 400 people to be the SAR's first Chief Executive. It was not a real election because everyone knew in advance that Mr Tung was the anointed one.
The so-called election for the second SAR Chief Executive will be held on March 24 next year. This time, there will be a 100 per cent improvement, as the size of the Election Committee will be doubled. With such a pace, democracy may prevail in the next century. Cast thinks that is unacceptable. Hong Kong must begin the process of political reform and give the people the right to choose their government.
Given the nature of small-circle elections, if Mr Tung has the backing of Beijing and runs for a second term, he will certainly win. Faced with the current economic difficulties, Hong Kong needs a Chief Executive who can inspire confidence and unite the people. Mr Tung offers exactly the opposite. His administration has created deep division within the community, resulting in a loss of confidence.
The people's aversion to Mr Tung has also strengthened their resolve for democratic government, as they become more convinced that a Chief Executive chosen by a small circle of people not only lacks mandate and credibility, but cannot be relied upon to defend the public interest. There is no doubt that many Hong Kong people are deeply dissatisfied with Mr Tung, including many in the business community, because they think the Tung administration's incompetence is the major reason for their commercial misfortune.
However, few business people are prepared to openly voice their disapproval as they fear that speaking out could jeopardise their business interests and open themselves and their relatives to victimisation. However in private, they have little hesitation in venting their vitriol.
Apart from concern that Mr Tung does not have the ability to run Hong Kong, there is also worry that a second term for him will mean Hong Kong may see more scandals of cronyism and non-prosecution.
If selected for a second term, Mr Tung looks determined to implement the so-called political accountability system, whereby top civil servants will be replaced with his political appointees. As the Legislative Council cannot act as an effective check on the executive authorities, there is a real danger that an unbridled Tung administration will be more dictatorial and ruthless.
Some have argued that as no one wants to be in the hot seat, Mr Tung will have to carry on. Nothing could be further from the truth. Power has many attractions. However, under the current system, if Mr Tung does not indicate he will stand down, no serious candidate would dare to challenge him.
Even if we cannot change the Basic Law to allow for direct election of the second SAR Chief Executive, we want to send out the message that Mr Tung should not serve a second term because he has lost the people's support. Whoever is selected to succeed him will know the fate that awaits an unpopular Chief Executive.
Some people say time is running out and Cast will not be able to achieve its objective. I beg to differ. As former British Prime Harold Wilson once said: "A week is a long time in politics." If Beijing recognises that Mr Tung is a liability, they may not want him to carry on.
Emily Lau Wai-hing is a legislator and convenor of The Frontier.