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June 25th, 2016:

Blame Hong Kong’s failures of government on Carrie Lam and Co, not our political system

Philip Bowring says multiple failings in the city – from the water contamination scandal to long-running issues in the tax system – are largely the result of ill-thought-out policies and inept implementation

“For administration” – note the words attached to the chief secretary’s title. Any claim by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to be the next chief executive must start with her performance in this role. The same applies to fellow lifelong civil servant, John Tsang Chun-wah.

Incumbent Leung Chun-ying may be unpopular by reason of his personality and desire to please Beijing (witness his obsession with “One Belt, One Road”). As a politician able to lead, he is a failure. Yet, the practical failings of his government are largely those of administration, for which Lam is responsible.

It is easy but wrong to blame failures on the political system [2], as former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, another political failure, has endeavoured to do. Yes, the obstruction of bills by pro­-democracy legislators has been an issue. So has the opposition to change from narrow functional constituency interests. But the failure of executive-led government is largely the failure of senior ministers, headed by Lam and Tsang, to use existing laws and powers to devise and implement new policies.

Lam has proved that, however sweetly she talks and smiles, she is unable to escape the cosy civil service cocoon, incapable of backing significant change and overprotective of her fellow bureaucrats. Thus, no individuals are to blame for the water contamination scandal [3], just the “system”. Similar attitudes have prevailed regarding marine and other accidents.

As for Tsang, here is an amiable individual who has missed seven budget opportunities to address [5] Hong Kong’s warped revenue structure [6]. Indeed, he has further narrowed the tax base. And while lecturing the public on the dangers of social spending, he has given carte blanche to tens of billions of waste on ill-thought-out, poorly designed and implemented infrastructure projects. The Treasury is supposed to keep oversight of spending but, in practice, agencies spend without control and then demand more money to finish the job. Years of talk about an effective but affordable pension system [7] to replace the current jumble of allowances, concessions and the flawed Mandatory Provident Fund has led nowhere. Financial market development remains impeded by two competing government entities, the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing and the Securities and Futures Commission.

Leung is ultimately to blame for the administration’s failures because of his lack of leadership

Meanwhile, look at the snail’s pace of change in areas demanding attention to bring Hong Kong up to date. The Octopus card was an innovation 19 years ago but has become yet another indirectly (via the MTR Corporation) government-controlled near monopoly while newer payment systems lag. Current tinkering with the taxi licences [8] in the face of Uber merely shows up how far Lam and Co are trapped by the taxi owners’ vested interests.

Tiny steps on issues such as water conservation, waste management and air pollution merely show up how far Hong Kong has fallen behind other advanced cities – and even some lower-income ones. It is nearly 50 years behind Tokyo in waste management, 30 behind Singapore in traffic management and two decades in water management.

Land issues remain subject to minor meddling rather than the real reform needed to break the grip of the major land owners and the Heung Yee Kuk mafia. It is no surprise that top civil servants Raphael Hui Si-yan and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen were both indicted for deals with developers. Many view their cases as the tip of an iceberg.

The administration even fails spectacularly in implementing existing laws where these inconvenience influential persons. Obstructive, illegal parking is a well-worn topic [10] but failure to address such a simple issue says much about the mentality of the administration.

The notion that administrators who have so singularly failed in recent years would do a better job than Leung is nonsense

Thanks to the administration’s disregard for other laws, Hong Kong also exhibits its nastier side to the outside world. In theory, there are laws to protect domestic helpers [11]. In practice, the efforts made to enforce them are so feeble that the relevant departments reasonably stand accused of being more interested in the well-being of exploitative agencies charging illegal fees than of the helpers. The authorities seldom police many loan companies (some subsidiaries of banks) from which helpers have to borrow to meet fee demands [12]. Lenders are known to charge fees in addition to the maximum permitted interest rate. All these abuses have been documented for years. But nothing is done, or about the widespread underpayment of statutory wages, nor to make it possible for helpers to complain without being fired and subject to deportation.

Leung is ultimately to blame for the administration’s failures because of his lack of leadership. Focus on “one country” and constitutional issues have meant that Lam, Tsang and company have been allowed to plod along addressing neither major issues firmly nor willing to upset entrenched interests. Beijing’s instincts also favour more government, not better government, and more focus on political correctness, rather than economic efficiency and market competition.

But the notion that administrators who have so singularly failed in recent years would do a better job than Leung is nonsense. The failure of the executive-led government is more about the quality of the executives than the system itself.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator

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