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Bring in outside talent to revive tired inner circle


Stephen Vines says C.Y. Leung should find new faces to help lead the city

Updated on Apr 14, 2012
We’ve heard the rhetoric, seen the grinning pictures, but now the time has come for Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s new chief executive, to provide the first concrete example of how he intends to govern. This involves announcing who will serve in his administration and who will advise it in the Executive Council.

Leung has a historic opportunity to demonstrate that his government will be different. To do so requires the kind of courage that he may well lack, because it means ditching the government’s traditional reliance on leadership from the same old band of slightly shop-soiled civil servants combined with a smattering of trustees who have done the rounds of government appointments.

Aside from the chief executive, there are 15 other principal officials, appointed under the sarcastically named “accountability system“.

Of these, two-thirds are drawn from the civil service, leaving five so-called outsiders. Three of the five non-civil servants have a genuine claim to expertise in their areas of responsibility: Wong Yan-lung, the lawyer who is secretary for justice, York Chow Yat-Ngok, the doctor who is responsible for food and health and, at a push, expertise can be ascribed to Chan Ka-keung, the academic with successful business school experience who is secretary for financial services.

The other two non-civil servants are essentially political appointees; they are the former communist newspaper editor Tsang Tak-sing, who presides over home affairs, and Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong member Gregory So Kam-leung, who occasionally surfaces as the commerce and economic development secretary.

The Executive Council, vaguely comparable to a cabinet in a normal political system, consists of 16 government members and 13 so-called non-official members. Most of these have been government trustees for so long it is hard to remember a time when, for example, Ronald Arculli and Charles Lee Yeh-kwong were not on more or less every major finance-related committee.

Then there’s Leong Che-hung, a recycled liberal who is now ubiquitous on government-appointed committees, as is the accountant Marvin Cheung Kin-tung. Lurking in the background is Lau Wong-fat, the boss of the all-powerful Heung Yee Kuk, which is advising its members to defy the law.

Arguably the only member of Exco who seems to have a distinctively different political view from her colleagues is Anna Wu Hung-yuk, but she has regrettably been silent in public since joining this committee.

The hubris that prevails in the higher levels of the civil service has convinced them that they alone are capable of governing Hong Kong. This is an insular group of people who have spent either all or most of their lives working together. They kind of understand that outsiders need to be given the odd department to run but hardly search for the brightest and best to take on these jobs. Henry Tang Ying-yen is a good example of the calibre of these placeholders.

It is up to Leung to decide if he wants to carry on with business as usual by keeping the old gang in place. Or will he merely shuffle the pack to bring in other members of the elite whose turn has come?

Does anyone seriously believe that, among a population of seven million people, there really are no more than a handful who can provide leadership in government? This is not to say that Leung should appoint his opponents in the democrat camp, because they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by joining an administration of this kind.

There is plenty of talent in Hong Kong. Indeed, is it being seriously argued that the civil servants who have run the government have done such a marvellous job that no one else could do better?

In normal political systems, elections draw in talent and nurture government leaders – this option is denied to Hong Kong. But if Leung really wants to demonstrate that his administration is aiming for a new start, he can still find talent residing outside the tiny elite. This, of course, assumes that Beijing will allow Leung to pick his own people, an assumption that cannot be safely made.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur

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