SCMP Friday, October 12, 2001

Masking political reform


The most significant part of the Policy Address is the 20 short paragraphs with the innocuous title ''Improving the Quality of Administration'', in which the seeds of far-reaching political reform are presented in the form of administrative tidying-up.
Tung Chee-hwa has always been seen as not wanting to address the issue of political reform.
He has also been unhappy with the support he has received from the Executive Council and the top ranks of the civil service. Last October, he said: ''Having inherited most of the systems and institutions operating prior to reunification, the SAR has to go through a process of adjustment and adaptation before it can function optimally.'' In other words, he did not regard the present system to be optimal.
On Wednesday, the Chief Executive revealed that a ''study'' had been conducted ''within the parameters of the Basic Law'' and outlined his ''initial thinking'' on these issues. But he did not say who carried out the study, although we do know it did not involve wide consultation within the civil service.
There will be a ''new system of accountability'', where the Chief Executive will nominate people for Beijing to appoint as heads of policy bureaus. The appointees will be ''answerable'' to the Chief Executive and enjoy employment terms different from top civil servants. New titles will be created and their contracts will not exceed that of the term of office of the Chief Executive. They will all sit on the Executive Council.
But Mr Tung gave no indication that the appointees will be accountable to the public in any way. The Basic Law provides for an ''executive-led'' system, which in Tung-speak means they are answerable to him because he is the ultimate executive power.
And who is the Chief Executive accountable to? According to the Basic Law, he is accountable to the Central People's Government and to the Hong Kong SAR. As such, it refers to the political entity but not its people.
Mr Tung also said: ''In the coming few months, we will examine in detail the ideas I have just outlined and prepare proposals on the arrangements.''
But it is unclear from this whether that will include any public consultation. After all, Mr Tung has already prefaced this by saying the study had been carried out ''within the parameters of the Basic Law''. Is this an indication that there will be no wide consultation?
Mr Tung believes it is his responsibility to put forward ''feasible proposals'', but that it is for the Chief Executive ''in the second term to decide whether these ideas should be implemented''. This is as clear a sign as any that he intends to run for and win a second term. Otherwise he would presumably not be so openly guiding his successor.
Executive accountability is a key aspect of the whole issue of political reform. And in terms of this overall picture, Mr Tung merely said: ''As to the constitutional structure after 2007, we have to review the operational experience gained from elections. This will provide the basis to consult widely with the public before reaching a conclusion.''
In other words, Mr Tung has deliberately left it ambiguous as to when public consultation will take place. Whenever this does happen, the new executive structure will already be in place, quite possibly with minimal public input.
Christine Loh Kung-wai ( ) heads a non-profit think tank and is a former legislator.