SCMP Tuesday, November 7, 2000


Food for thought if British rule of HK continued

On the first day of his first official visit to the SAR, the chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Li Ruihuan, raised a thought-provoking topic about the performance of the post-1997 administration: are we doing better than the British colonialists?
He urged the most senior echelon of local officials to "do better" than their British predecessors. But Mr Li did not enlarge on the criteria he would use to measure Tung Chee-hwa's Government. When asked to elaborate yesterday, Mr Li said he had not come to Hong Kong often before the handover and so was not in a position to pass judgment.
There is no way Hong Kong can be put in a controlled social experiment to ascertain whether it would have been better, or worse, had British rule continued. Yet it would be interesting to look at how social security and civil liberties have been tackled by the respective governments. Despite the differences in social context, the two approaches offer food for thought.
Hong Kong's authorities have insisted that the introduction of a minimum wage would be counter-productive in tackling the widening gap between rich and poor.
In contrast, a national minimum wage became payable in Britain from April 1 of last year. The general minimum level is £3.60 (about HK$40) per hour, while the rate for workers aged between 18 and 22 is £3 an hour.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has claimed credit for this additional social security net. In the preface to his Government's 1998 annual report, he wrote: "What government this century would have cut corporate tax to help business yet introduce a minimum wage to help the poorest paid?"
Unlike the Hong Kong Government, New Labour actually took the initiative in pushing for a minimum wage for all employees. The Prime Minister has been keen to convince the electorate that measures to help business and the needy do not have to be mutually exclusive.
A similar difference has also emerged on the official stances of restraining state powers relating to individual freedoms. Despite the protests and views expressed by some legislators, Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee maintained that she knew of no compelling reason to revise provisions about public assemblies in the Public Order Ordinance.
Meanwhile, a controversial Human Rights Act came into effect in Britain on October 2. The new legislation aims at protecting an individual's rights against an overbearing state. It has incorporated the values enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law.
Nonetheless, critics have warned that the British system is not ready for such a liberal law. They fear that some state organs and related organisations could be paralysed by a flood of lawsuits. In the past, complainants lodged their cases with the European Courts of Human Rights. Now, they can file their cases in domestic courts. Some are worried, for example, that the act could allow pupils to challenge rules on school uniforms.
In any case, the Blair Government's basic tenet is that the state's powers to intervene in individual freedoms should be better defined and kept to a minimum. The Hong Kong authorities, on the other hand, have left an impression that they are eager to retain as much legal power as possible to provide for any unforeseen circumstances.
There is no way to tell how many of these New Labour initiatives would have spilt over to Hong Kong had it remained a British dependent territory. But if higher standards of government are set elsewhere, there is no reason why our SAR administration should not be measured by more-stringent yardsticks.
Andy Ho ( ) is a political commentator.