Print Version    Email to Friend
Discontent and mistrust cast shadow over handover anniversary

HONG KONG (UCAN/SE): The Hong Kong Celebrations Association announced that the 15th anniversary of the 1 July 1997 handover of the former colony from British to Chinese sovereignty will be marked with a three-day gala carnival of events.

However, while the announcement may have been upbeat, its spirit does not seem to be reflected in the mood of the seven million-strong population of the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

Two opinion polls published in the past fortnight by the Public Opinion Programme at Hong Kong University reveal considerable discontent in the territory.

The first found the disapproval rating on the outgoing chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, has reached its highest level ever, immediately prior to the end of his tenure.

The poll registered a 78 per cent disapproval level.

Tsang’s fall from grace has been dramatic considering his extremely high approval rating of 72 per cent when he took office in 2005.

A widening gap between rich and poor combined with a series of corruption scandals affecting the highest levels of his administration appear to be the main reasons behind his descent into the political cesspool.

Tsang’s administration has been marred by a string of scandals that began to emerge in February.

There has been controversy over and criticism of his choice of expensive presidential suites on official trips overseas, as well as freebie trips on private jets and yachts owned by tycoon friends.

On top of this, his former chief secretary, Rafael Hui, is currently under investigation for allegedly receiving payments from real-estate tycoons worth more than $19.38 million.

In another opinion poll that surveyed 1,052 people in the territory, 36 per cent said they held a negative view of Hong Kong’s administration, the highest disapproval rating of any administration since the handover to the Chinese in 1997.

Camoes Tam Chi-keung, a commentator on Hong Kong-China relations, says the rise in pessimism in Hong Kong is hardly surprising as prosperity has waned since the handover, which is in stark contrast with the mainland and Macau, both of which have flourished.

“Disparity between the rich and poor, and the hegemony of real-estate tycoons, has long been serious, and now the public has also witnessed problems in the civil service following the exposure of misconduct by the chief executive and top officials allegedly taking financial advantages,” he says.

Meanwhile, recently updated figures on the Gini Coefficient, a measurement of wealth distribution disparity, was at its highest point ever last year when it reached 0.537, rating Hong Kong as having the biggest rich-poor income gap in the world (a zero reading represents equality and the index measures up to one, regarded as the worst reading).

In April, a real estate advertisement drew widespread derision on chat forums as many judged describing a 753-square-foot apartment valued at $4.1 million as “a blessed gift for the poor,” as being further evidence that the middle class is being cut adrift in terms of spending power.

Tam says the spiralling cost of housing and the public perception that an increasing percentage of Hong Kong’s wealth is being concentrated in the hands of an elite few are likely to be the biggest challenges for the incoming chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

Ma Ngok, an associate professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, described the new head of the territory’s government as inheriting a poisoned chalice.

“Part of the discontent comes from the rich-poor gap and other deep-rooted social conflicts, but a major reason is policy failure for which citizens do not see any hint of a solution,” he says.

Speaking to the topic of Challenges and opportunities facing the next government, at Hong Kong University on June 18, Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, from the Hong Kong Institute of Education and chair professor of Public Administration, described the current governance system as lacking a popular mandate.

He described it as dogged with historical problems, as it is based on the One Country Two Systems principle, which was formed on the presumption that there would be little contact between Hong Kong and China.

Cheung pointed out that the high level of trade, intermarriage, tourism and financial support from Beijing was not foreseen and the continuation of the British system of administration, which utilised consultation, now relies on bargaining, which is a democratic process.

However, he pointed out that the bit of democracy that has been added onto the old system is not adequate to sustain a system of political bargaining at an effective enough level to affect good governance.

“The colonial model is no longer viable,” he commented, “as Hong Kong changed in 1997 from a submissive society to an unstable one.”

Cheung noted that while on many fronts Hong Kong is doing pretty well, the notable gaps which cause a high level of discontent are in social services, distribution of wealth, career opportunities and property prices.

“The fruit of business prosperity has not trickled down during the administration of Tsang,” he pointed out, “and people feel they are being ripped off.”

However, he said that people in government are aware of this and quoted Tsang as saying, “It is better to instigate change rather than have it hoisted upon you.”

He said that Beijing is aware of this as well, which is reflected in its refusal to back the keep-things-as-they-are candidate for the new chief executive, Henry Tang Yin-yen.

He added that Beijing knows that more democracy is the only way to give the government a popular mandate and create more accountability in administration.

“Hong Kong is trapped in a political void with no winners. There is no balance between trust and mistrust, and it has been redefined into mistrust,” he commented. “Consequently, policies are easily derailed.”

Cheung is pushing for a new institutional logic to affect the fundamental changes necessary to transform the current administration into a government.

Ma suggests that Beijing and the local administration need to speed up the democratisation process in Hong Kong to appease fears that public policy is inflexible and ineffective.

“With a political system that is not democratic enough, people think that public policies do not reflect their views,” he says.

Cheung believes that Hong Kong needs an executive-led administration to be co-responsible with an elected legislative body.

However, he insists that it must also be pro-active and become a knowledge-based government, not in the fiscal sense, but in terms of community values.

“Not interfering too much, but it must become an enabling government,” he concluded, adding that Leung has positioned himself as a change man and needs to be clear about his responsibility to the people and to Beijing, as well as finding a way of earning the trust of both, which he admitted is difficult to do witho ut being part of party politics.

More from this section