Betraying Hong Kong's Trust

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Whether democracy, monarchy or dictatorship of the people, a government can only be effective so long as its citizens believe in it. The Hong Kong government's greatest failing may be its complete inability to inspire trust. The economy is reeling, anxiety is mounting about potentially harsh anti-subversion laws, and a fresh health crisis is brewing. Yet all those problems — serious though they are — are mere symptoms of the underlying ailment. Even in the colonial era, Hong Kong's citizenry put its faith in its leaders to do their best by the people. But now the growing sentiment is that the government is out of touch with the popular mood, or worse, simply doesn't care.

Cynics say Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's administration is plagued by an intelligence gap — government officials are simply not up to the job and, lacking any experience of elective office, have little idea how to communicate with the public. Another view is that the highly paid bureaucrats and businessmen who now lead Hong Kong are far too concerned about how they are perceived in Beijing and not sufficiently bothered about local public opinion. Both views add up to a sense of continual official bungling, underlined by a failure to appreciate just how this fecklessness causes communal disquiet.

Public alarm at yet another outbreak of the killer bird flu virus is an example of a city disappointed by its leadership. The virus was supposed to have been wiped out after a 1997 mass slaughter of chickens. That claim has been disproved by two major outbreaks since then. With a third underway, the government's response only further undermined its credibility. "We can see that our surveillance system is working well," Ingrid Yeung, the acting deputy secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, told legislators last week — without explaining how mere detection would result in complete eradication.

A government that fails to come completely clean about a poultry problem hardly inspires confidence regarding even more complex matters such as the introduction of new anti-subversion laws. Hong Kong's mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, requires the government to enact legislation preventing acts of subversion and treason against China. The government had the option of introducing a minimalist bill replacing outdated references to acts against the British Crown by making a tight definition of subversion that would not have caused much alarm. Instead it plans a wide-ranging bill that not only provides a very broad definition of subversion but also gives the police new and worrying powers. In defense of the legislation, government officials repeatedly stress that it will not be abused, and that civil liberties will be preserved. In short: trust us. Yet opinion polls provide evidence of growing concern over these laws, and last week opponents of the anti-subversion legislation staged one of the biggest political protests since 1997.

The furor over the proposed legislation goes a long way to dispel the myth that Hong Kong people are only worried about their pocket books. However, they have more than adequate reason to be worried about money matters as well. Back in 1997, Donald Tsang, the then financial secretary and now number two in the administration, assured Hong Kongers that the worst of the financial crisis would be over by the end of the year. And that Hong Kong was likely to fare better than other Asian countries caught in the financial whirlwind. Instead, the crisis got a lot worse and Hong Kong suffered a greater degree of economic decline than many of its neighbors. Deflation is rampant, unemployment is at record levels, pay cuts are the norm and new bankruptcy records keep emerging.

The government should spend less on showpiece projects, be more serious about tackling a burgeoning deficit, and focus on preserving a free market. Instead, its most substantive response to the economic crisis has been to try and shore up property prices by a series of land sale freezes, curbs on building of public housing and increasing the supply of mortgage credit. The main beneficiaries of these policies have been the big property developers — the people closest to Tung. Meanwhile, the government is thinking of reducing its public spending by slashing the education and welfare budgets and imposing a levy on foreign domestic workers. The government's message, whether intended or not, is that the rich will be taken care of, but the lower echelons of society must fend for themselves.

Hong Kong people are sophisticated, hardworking, and pragmatic. They understand the authorities should not bear all the blame for the territory's woes. All they want is the smallest sense that the government has a turnaround strategy, or is even prepared to admit how bad things are. All they want is to once again be able to believe in their leaders.