Would Tung Chee-hwa prefer a HK party-state?

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At a pro-establishment foundation’s luncheon, Hong Kong’s former chief executive uttered troubling words with implications for local governance. If only the local media were willing to call him to task.

Those who read between the lines of Tung Chee-hwa’s (董建華) 13 June speech (in Chinese) at an Our Hong Kong Foundation luncheon may notice something disquieting. The former Hong Kong Chief Executive presented what sound like some blatantly undemocratic views on local governance – ones that give the impression that he would be happier if Hong Kong functioned a bit more like a party-state.

As one might expect from a Vice-Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, most of the speech contains relatively hackneyed pro-establishment political talking points.

Tung offers supporting words for the administration’s housing and livelihood policies and treats listeners to an oft-heard claim that political instability in 2014-15 has delayed the realisation of universal suffrage. Officials’ role in enforcing that delay seems to have escaped his notice.

Predictably, Tung also couldn’t resist a dig at the Hong Kong independence movement (Hint: He think’s it’s a bad thing). Not to be left out was the ritual ballyhooing of the mainland’s economic goodies.

The wheat from the chaff

Between yawns, one could almost dismiss Tung’s speech as inconsequential if it were not for his introductory and concluding thoughts. Tung starts with the following observation:

Since the handover, under the protection of “One Country, Two Systems”, Hong Kong people have been the masters of their house. However, the new system has led to new governance problems. Despite their efforts since the handover, serving chief executives have had difficulty realising the pre-handover executive-led governance model. The problem is that, since the handover, the chief executive does not lead a political party.

Specifically, Tung does not like that legislators of different political parties represent competing interests and ceaselessly quarrel (爭持不下) with the government. He then surfs through platitudes before reaching his concluding section, which identifies issues where he thinks collective action is needed in Hong Kong. As one might expect, the outcome is a bit one-sided:

More effort in cooperation between the government and the pro-establishment camp, creating close and partner-like relations, can lead to more pro-establishment participation in administration. At the same time, the pro-establishment camp must not only think about its constituents’ interests but must also think about Hong Kong’s overall interests.

As for pan-democrats, their job, suggests Tung, is to lean harder on those who would exclude “One Country” from “One Country, Two Systems” and to be “reasonable” and “constructive” when it comes to resolving issues. It’s a clever piece of rhetorical footwork, coming on the heels of an earlier statement in which he acknowledges that democracies accommodate different points of view.

A “party” problem?

On the surface, Hong Kong’s former number-one has a point. The rule that sitting chief executives cannot be party members, specified in the Chief Executive Election Ordinance, has caused many governance problems in the territory.

It hinders the cultivation of political talent by liberating candidates from the need for building supporting coalitions, claims Li Pang-kwong, Political Science Associate Professor at Baptist University. In layman’s terms, this means that chief executives are dunces when it comes to gaining public approval because they never learn how to make themselves likeable.

A different perspective comes from Ma Ngok, Associate Professor of Government and Public Administration at Chinese University. He believes the rule harms parties by weakening the incentive for new members to join and stay loyal. Why should anyone join a party when the highest they can rise is to the fairly weak position of a legislator in an executive-led system? Tung may kid himself that advocate lawmakers cause problems, but the government ultimately wins passage of almost all legislation it proposes.

But Tung veers off course when he calls for more cooperation between the pro-establishment and the government, a suggestion that raises thorny questions. Why should this cooperation be desirable if Tung believes that democratic reforms are necessary? Does he really believe that a hypothetical pan-democrat chief executive would actively seek to co-opt pro-establishment politicians and pacify his or her own allies?

Or does Tung simply mean that pan-democrat chief executives should also cultivate relationships with their own camps? In this case, would the pro-establishment camp become “unreasonable” too the moment it becomes an opposition? His dismissive treatment of his political opponents and their opinions makes this hard to believe.

How do his words make sense in anything but the context of a party-state system, where the executive leads a docile party (or in this case, camp) with a permanent majority, that exists to rubber-stamp “the right” policy proposals?

Whither the Fourth Estate?

Perhaps Tung’s pro-establishment credentials are so well known that the local media felt no need point out the hypocrisy of his words, coming as they do from the chairman of an organisation that claims to promote social consensus.

EJInsight has the best English-language coverage of the speech but limits its scope of analysis to questions of the practicality of party-government cooperation. Many voices believe that, distrustful of party politics, Beijing would not be comfortable with Tung’s idea. They forget that China has plenty of political parties. It’s just that the only one that matters is the Communist Party of China.

As for Chinese coverage, the Apple Daily deserves an honourable mention for highlighting the speech’s troubling parts in as few words as possible. The paper even includes responses from Democratic Party leader Emily Lau Wai-hing (劉慧卿) and Liberal Party Chairman Felix Chung Kwok-pan (鍾國斌), both of whom say that the government should not provide preferential treatment to political parties.

Other media organisations drop the ball entirely, either overlooking the problem in their haste to raise readership by covering Tung’s distaste for independence advocacy or ignoring the matter entirely. Miraculously, Wen Wei Po wrote three articles on the speech, none of which effectively addresses Tung’s musings on ideal governance. We might expect no less from a newspaper controlled by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government.

And this may be the most unsettling fact of all. If we cannot rely on the Fourth Estate to do its job properly when self-nominated senior statesmen deliver crackpot thoughts, whom can we trust to sound the alarm when such thoughts inspire damaging actions?