Policy Address 2016: Too little, too late

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The CE needs to nail this policy address, but past decisions mean he has a range of problems of his own and others making, that will foil his best efforts.

Photo: www.info.gov.hk


Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s next policy speech, his fourth since taking power in 2012, may be his last opportunity to fix a host of political, social and economic problems before his term ends in July next year. But hopes that he will be able to reinvent himself and boost his sagging popularity are misplaced. A string of recent events is a stark reminder of the governance predicaments he is facing.


Publishers MIA

As he puts the final touches on his annual speech and his aides weigh publicity options, they will have to find quick fixes to defuse a looming crisis precipitated by the mysterious disappearance of five shareholders and staff of the Causeway Bay Books, which is known for its sale of books the Chinese Communist Party leaders don’t like to read – and especially don’t  like others to read.

The saga has sparked an outcry in the society. There are fears, not unfounded, that mainland cadres, presumably from state or public security branches, might have discreetly carried out duties in the city. If proved to be true, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun (羅范椒芬), who is a local delegate of the National People’s Congress, said it is a serious violation of the policy of “one country, two systems.” It was the subject of protests staged by the Democratic Party and the League of Social Democrats outside the central government’s Liaison Office on Sunday.

On Monday, Leung broke silence and told reporters the government is seriously concerned about the case, which would be a breach of the Basic Law if true.


Throwing down King Arthur as gauntlet

Also on Sunday, thousands of alumni, academics and students of the University of Hong Kong petitioned at Government House, where Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying works and resides, against his appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung (李國章) as the university’s Council chairman.

While calling on Leung to withdraw Li’s appointment, they announced plans to set up a task force to monitor his work and launch a campaign to amend provisions in university ordinances that mandate the Chief Executive as university head.

On Monday, 16 pro-democracy professional groups published a full-page newspaper advertisement urging Leung to “stop picking fights, give us a break.” They said Leung’s decision reflects his approach of “being obstinate, and picking up fights for their own.”


Fights all over

On the economic front, tourism figures released last week show the number of mainland visitors has continued its downward trend in December. In another sign of the slowing economy, weak consumption and dented confidence towards the 2016 economy, business at the just-ended annual Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo has recorded a double-digit drop from last year’s.

On the social front, the battle-lines have been drawn over a government consultation over retirement protection, which was kicked off last month. Proponents for universal retirement protection have been up in arms against a retirement protection option put forward by the government. Under the option, elderly people with assets below HK$80,000 and a monthly income at or below HK$7,340 will be entitled to a monthly allowance of HK$3,230.

Though scheduled to end by May, the tussle over retirement protection and the related issue of an overhaul of the Mandatory Provident Scheme are set to become  major elections issue in the next Legislative Council polls scheduled for September.

In another two months, a government-appointed committee is expected to issue a report on Standard Working Hours after two years of internal debate. Citing studies they commissioned, the committee is inclined not to enact law to mandate a cap on work hours in their report. Union representatives on the committee have boycotted their last two meetings in protest against what they deemed a biased finding.


Xi’s aims

The string of fights on various fronts are hardly exhaustive. They have given a sample of the pressing tasks that fall under the umbrella of aims articulated by President Xi Jinping for Leung during his duty visit to Beijing last month.

Speaking at a photo-call session, Xi underlined a three-part agenda for Leung, namely “seeking development, ensuring stability, fostering harmony.” In his remarks, Xi has also pointed out unspecified “new circumstances” in the implementation of “one country, two systems” in recent years. But he reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to ensure the policy will not be “distorted” or “become deformed.”

Xi’s directives have set the theme of Leung’s upcoming policy blueprint and his remaining term. But there is a big question mark in how he delivers the tasks in light of his governance style and approach, policy priorities, not to mention the practical difficulties in building consensus on the contentious issues.

Despite the fact Leung’s first term has still more than 18 months to go, critics and doubters can be forgiven for giving an early verdict on his governance. Whether he meant what he said when he declared there would only be one camp, i.e. “Hong Kong Camp”, in his victory speech at the end of the 2012 chief executive selection is unimportant. Whether he should take the blame, or part of it, for the worsened socio-political divide in the society is academic. The truth is he has failed to foster stability and harmony – and has arguably made things worse.


You had an option, sir

He could have changed his mind over the appointment of Arthur Li and axed inept ministers such as education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim (吳克儉) to show he had heard the voice of people. Between the choice of being loved and hated, Leung consistently opts for the latter, wrongly believing that he can only get things done by being a bad guy.

Under his leadership, the ruling team has become increasingly obsessed with a siege mentality, wrongly believing that those who are not friends are their foes. The harsh criticism made by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (林鄭月娥) against an authority in welfare policies, Nelson Chow Wing-sun (周永新) , over the retirement protection consultation paper is a telling case. Mr Chow had been named by Mrs Lam to lead a study on retirement protection. His recommendation has been dismissed as impractical and his research credentials challenged by Mrs. Lam after he lashed out at the government.

Speaking after the political reform fiasco, Mr Leung has vowed to focus on economic and livelihood issues. He is hoping to deliver results on other fronts to make up on the loss in democratic development. The city’s developments thereafter, however, have left much to be desired. Hong Kong, as Lan Kwai Fong Group chairman Allan Zeman has lamented in an interview in 2014, “is stuck.”

In next week’s blueprint, Leung will be long in his self-praise over his achievements, but short in identifying his deficiencies and failures, let alone taking serious steps to restore the good shape of the city.