New York’s Giuliani Moxy needed in Hong Kong

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New York’s Mayor Giuliani started with small things to win the hearts of New Yorkers and turn the city around. This Policy Address didn’t get there.

Photo Credit: Dave Winer at (with modification)


Against the backdrop of despondency about New York’s governance, Rudolph W. Giuliani took office as mayor in 1993. He firmly believed that long term success would come from starting with small, quickly achieved victories. In his book Leadership, he shared the wisdom of sweating such small issues as street fairs in Manhattan to avoid “small stuff” spiralling into major disasters.

New York, Hong Kong

The 2016 Hong Kong is fraught with despondency of a different kind. Unlike New York in 1993, nobody feel unsafe going out at night. But the 7.5 million people have become dispirited by a long list of political, economic and social grievances. Unaffordable housing. Rising living costs. Uncertain economic outlook. Deficiencies in education policy. Inadequate retirement protection for the poor. The degraded liveability of our city. The list goes on.

Heed the wisdom of ‘sweating small stuff’ to avoid it spiralling into major disasters.

Worse, the city is hamstrung by a lack of leadership. aggravated by a dysfunctional political system and strained ties with the mainland. Popularity of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his team and the Legislative Council has sunk to sank to a nadir. Jitters about personal safety are growing in the wake of the mysterious “disappearance” of five associates of the Causeway Bay Books, which sells books critical of the Chinese Communist Party leaders. The saga is fuelling the troublesome mainland-Hong Kong relations and is deepening doubts about the safeguards to the city’s values and systems under the “one country, two systems” policy.

Against the background of low, if any, expectations for his 2016 Policy Address, Leung has tried to lift the hearts of people with small stuff while rolling out initiatives on big issues such as “One Belt, One Road” and innovation and technology. In the longest policy address in recent memory, he announced dozens of measures ranging from the setting up of innovation start-up funds and scholarship for students in countries along the “Belt and Road” to priority facilities for elderly people in public toilets and longer green lights for them in pedestrian crossings.

Small stuff is, well, small

The focus on “the small stuff”, however, has not been well received. The opposite is true. Cynics and critics dubbed it as an approach that downgrades the Policy Address to a district council work report. The merits of the “small” initiatives have been lost in the midst of a chorus of criticism against the overkill of the “Belt, Road” development strategy in his speech. (There are 48 mentions of “One Belt, One Road” in the English speech, 42 in the Chinese version.)

Results of a tracking poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong public opinion programme after the policy address was delivered show it is the most unpopular blueprint since the survey was launched in 1999. Another poll conducted by welfare groups gave a thumbs-down to his livelihood-improvement work.

“If the initiatives on big issues aim to give hope for the long-term, it has failed

In a rebuke to the criticism, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on Thursday the package of livelihood improvement measures is “meticulous, heart-warming.” Transport and housing minister Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said: “Nothing is small when it comes to livelihood.” Although some people might think installing seats for elderly people at bus stops is petty, he maintained it is an improvement for them.

It is difficult to get a full picture of the receptiveness of elderly people to the series of measures taken by Leung, the latest of which cover toilets and bus stops, since he came to power. It is also premature to judge about the measures aimed to put Hong Kong ahead of the pack in capitalising on China’s grand development strategy and to catch up in the fast-growing innovation and technology sector. Suffice it to say Leung’s dual focus on the big issues and the small stuff seems to have been received as a case of neither here nor there.

Direction generally sound. Execution questioned

Few people would dismiss the “Belt, Road” strategy and the innovation and technology drive as wrong in general direction. It is no longer a question of if, but how. Leung has fallen short in giving concrete ideas about how Hong Kong can benefit from the nation’s strategy and how the city could make a mark in the highly-competitive world of innovation and technology.

If the initiatives on big issues aim to give hope for the long-term, it has failed to do so. The “Belt, Road” overkill has been dubbed as a move to please Xi, who is spearheading the strategy. Measures to help promote innovation and technology have been greeted with doubt. Some cynics claims a new government fund, aimed to lure private investment in the sector through matching subsidies, might be manipulated to reward politically supportive businessmen with friendly ties with Leung.

And if the measures on small matters aim to warm the hearts of people, it has only received lukewarm response at its best. That Leung has over-promised and under-delivered on big policies including pensions, a better mandatory provident fund hedging arrangement and standard working hours has doomed his attempt to please the elderly through small initiatives.

Guili’s Rulies

Recollecting the experience of his governance in New York, Giuliani has set out principles of leadership. Surround yourself with great people. Have beliefs and communicate them. See things for yourself. Set an example. Stand up to bullies. Deal with first things first. Underpromise and overdeliver.

Failure to win the hearts and minds

At his meeting with President Xi Jinping during his duty visit to Beijing late December, Leung was told to focus on three tasks: facilitating economic development, improving livelihood and fostering harmony. His latest governing blueprint leaves much to be desired. A question mark is hanging over his economic strategy. An end to the protracted row over pensions still looks remote. The socio-political divide is getting worse.

His failure to win the hearts and minds of people in addressing their immediate and long-term concerns about the health of the city has raised serious questions about his leadership qualities, casting a long shadow over his dream for another five-year term.