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Can Tung Change Course?

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
July 24, 2003
Far Eastern Economic Review

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The spectacle of a half million Hong Kong demonstrators marching to protest against a proposed anti-subversion law one day and 50,000 demonstrating at an evening vigil a week later brought into brilliant relief the crisis of legitimacy currently confronting Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. With his approval ratings plummeting, the economy in shambles and his leadership team under siege for a number of recent political missteps, Tung has only one realistic option to salvage not only his own legacy but also the future of the city. He must address the interests of Hong Kong people and move forward with long-stalled political reform.

The Hong Kong people are in no mood to be patient. This year's economic forecast is bleak. Unemployment, already at a 30-year high of 8.3%, is expected to rise to 8.8% during the third quarter. Budget deficits are rising. And with Hong Kong still facing the economic aftershocks of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, little relief is in sight. The government hopes that its HK$1 billion ($130 million) package to spur job creation, and the mainland's plans to remove tariffs on more than two-thirds of Hong Kong's exports, will help boost economic growth and popular support for the government. Yet even the most optimistic scenario of economic recovery will only go so far to restore the public's confidence in Tung's leadership. To do this will require a new vision for Hong Kong's political future: One that both restores the lustre of the city's world-renowned efficient and transparent government, and looks forward to fulfilling the potential of democracy embodied in the Basic Law.

To start, Tung must admit that his traditional way of doing political business has not worked. He must resist the inevitable temptation to lash out at his political opposition or run for cover to Beijing, whose leadership, in any case, is looking increasingly less sympathetic to the chief executive's plight. He will also need to call to account officials who are accused of not performing well, such as Yeoh Eng Kiong, criticized for his handling of the Sars crisis, or Antony Leung, who damaged the credibility of the government by buying a new car just before he announced higher taxes for such purchases.

The second step must be to move forward on political reform, something the chief executive has shown little interest in pursuing to date. Nonetheless, he has the blueprint for transforming Hong Kong into a vibrant democracy. The Basic Law provides the outline, if not the road map, for universal suffrage and direct parliamentary elections at the conclusion of a 10-year transition period. Tung could begin now to articulate the process by which elections will be held in 2008. Such a step would likely go a long way towards rescuing his beleaguered supporters in Legislative Council elections next year.

Certainly, the chief executive would not be the first Chinese leader to change course mid-stream and leave a radically different legacy than originally anticipated. Former Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo reversed his political trajectory to preside over a process of radical political reform that transformed Taiwan from a repressive authoritarian state to a dynamic, open and competitive political system over the course of a decade. Hong Kong is more than half-way there. It already boasts a system of competitive political parties with identifiable platforms, a vibrant media and a population that has no difficulty recognizing and articulating its interests.

In this way, too, Hong Kong could join a proud tradition in Chinese history in which local officials experiment with new ideas and approaches that later serve as a model for the rest of the country. While neither Taiwan nor Hong Kong can provide a precise blueprint for the evolution of democracy on the mainland, President Hu Jintao's call for greater intra-party electoral competition might well be followed by a 10-year road map for the gradual introduction of opposition parties and direct elections.

Some had hoped in 1997 that Hong Kong would serve as a prudent example of "one country-two systems," help induce Taiwan to consider a formal political union with China and provide a model for the mainland in bureaucratic efficiency and transparency. Hong Kong's government has yet to deliver on any of its potential. Yet it is not too late. Tung Chee-hwa and his government need only follow through on the basic tenets of the Basic Law to restore Hong Kong's reputation and fulfill the region's promise as a model of economic and political freedom.

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