SCMP Friday, October 12, 2001

Embattled Tung seeks to harness winds of change


They may appear unrelated, but Tung Chee-hwa's $15 billion economic-relief package and the broad outline of his proposed accountability system in Wednesday's Policy Address are indicative of the wind of change that is sweeping through the style and structure of the SAR ruling team.
The relief package may fall short of public expectations for an economic cure. Its substantive impact on the economy and domestic consumption will be minimal. It is likely to be seen as a little giveaway that may make people feel slightly better. But this will not change the misfortune felt in the middle- and lower-income groups.
But it represents an attempt by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to be more responsive to political pressure for the Government to act, and to be seen to act, when the public feels doom and gloom. And it shows a change in the mindset of the Tung leadership with greater sensitivity towards heeding populist demands.
While acknowledging that the creation of job opportunities was basically the task of the private sector, Mr Tung indicated the Government had a responsibility to improve the business environment and "alleviate the difficulties faced by our people".
This more responsive approach by the Tung team to negative public sentiment has been evident since the September 11 attacks in the US, which prompted the Chief Executive and his top aides to launched a high-profile public relations campaign to show an active and flexible leadership.
And it is fostering precisely this type of leadership which is one of the major considerations behind creating a new system of political appointees who can "better respond to the demands of the community".
Following the Policy Address, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said pegging the fixed-term contracts on which appointees will be hired to the five-year term that the Chief Executive serves would bring about drastic changes in policy vision and approach.
"The appointees have to think clearly what they want to achieve in the five-year term and take a closer grip of the policy agenda. The width and depth of policy vision will be totally different. They have to keep in close touch with the pulse of public opinion".
A senior official, who preferred anonymity, said: "It will be quite different in future when you have a group of quasi-cabinet members who work as a real team. They will all have to go to the districts to listen to the people, get their support, and do what the politicians have been doing."
Senior officials have privately admitted there would be drastic changes and implications for the present civil-service system and culture. One said it would be likely that these politically appointed principal officials "will have some say" in picking the senior team of civil servants who will serve under them and be responsible for the actual implementation of policies.
Mr Tsang, who appears to be more positive about the new system of political appointees than his predecessor Anson Chan Fang On-sang, added: "Civil servants will no longer have to be troubled by politics. They can do their job, make objective analysis of policies wholeheartedly. Many of our colleagues could not cope with the enormous workload in recent years. They have to work very hard, but their work has not been recognised by the people."
While some senior officials share Mr Tsang's view, others are more cautious and cast doubt on how many of the incumbent policy-bureau heads will be prepared to take the plunge.
It is clear, however, Mr Tung is keen to restructure the top echelon to build a stronger leadership. Apparently he is adamant that the anomalies in the present structure have restrained him in pursuing policy visions. This is a view shared by some of his close advisers.
Reflecting on the past four years, Mr Tung insisted he had stuck to his beliefs on the economy, education and the way to implement "one country, two systems".
"The present problem is one of how we can create social consensus and better set our priority tasks," he said.
Had it not been for the sharp deterioration of the Hong Kong economy, Mr Tung could have done more soul-searching in his fifth policy blueprint - the last in his present five-year term. He nonetheless set out some clear priorities, such as education and infrastructure, and attempted to define a "social contract" between the Government and the people.
The Government, he said, would continue to invest in infrastructure and education, maintain Hong Kong's competitiveness, attract more investment, improve the business environment and provide a safety net as well as opportunities for people to strive for a better future. In return, he asked the public to be united and not to lose confidence or hope in themselves.
"We maintain our composure, walk the extra mile, strive for excellence, better ourselves and break new ground," he concluded.
Together with a firmer commitment to make policymakers more accountable, Mr Tung is attempting to strengthen his governance through a stronger ruling team and base of community support.
But he also has a more pressing and practical concern. With the second selection process for Chief Executive only five months away, it is imperative he restores confidence in his leadership. Although opportunity can spring from adversity, the harsh reality is that Mr Tung has not yet been able to turn the present crisis into an opportunity. One reason may be that many people place more blame on him for their misfortune than on the tough external environment and possible constraints on his leadership.
Mr Tung is pinning high hopes on the proposed quasi-ministerial system to improve the governance problem.
His immediate battle will be the negative perception of him increasingly taking root within a wide section of the community. Regardless of whether this is fair or not, his leadership is now seen as a major obstacle to boosting the confidence of the public.
As one woman caller told Mr Tung on a radio phone-in show yesterday morning, many in the community hope he will decide not to run for a second term - and believe such a step would be the best way he could revive public confidence.
Chris Yeung ( ) is the Post's Political Editor.