RTHK "Letter to Hong Kong"

by Martin Lee

Broadcasted on 21 April 2002 on Radio 3, Radio Television Hong Kong

Hong Kong's first five years as a special administrative region under Chinese rule has proved to be extremely stable, though perhaps not too prosperous. The next five years should be a period of consolidation, so that the promise of "a high degree of autonomy" under the policy of "one country, two systems" and "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" enshrined in the Joint Declaration can be realized by the introduction of democracy to Hong Kong. For it is only when the Chief Executive and every member of the Legislative Council are democratically elected that there can be a truly accountable government. For only then will those in office know that if they are not seen to be doing a good job, for example, in protecting the freedoms of the people, then they would certainly not be re-elected in the next election.

Mr. Tung has not been keen at all in moving Hong Kong forward in terms of democracy; but he is extremely keen to introduce a system of so-called "accountable government" or "ministerial system" which he announced to the Legislative Council last Wednesday, which is to take effect on 1 July this year.

A ministerial system by whatever model is a necessary complement to democratic government. But the two must go together, like our two legs. And you cannot walk with one but not the other. And if you allow one leg to walk faster than the other, then you lose your balance.

And that is precisely what is wrong with Mr. Tung's proposal of "accountable government".

It gives himself more power, and yet he remains totally unaccountable to the people of Hong Kong - either directly or indirectly through the Legislative Council.

The system makes the ministers (or directors of bureaux) accountable to the Chief Executive who alone can recommend their appointment and removal to the Central People's Government; and under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance, the Chief Executive himself could be removed by the Central People's Government effectively at will.

If the Legislative Council were to adopt Mr. Tung's proposal of "accountable government", it will have the undesirable effect of ensuring that the Chief Executive and his ministers will all be accountable to Beijing, but not to the people of Hong Kong, or even to the Legislative Council, in which only a minority of members have been directly elected by the people of Hong Kong.

The idea of a ministerial system is a good one, but only in the context of a democratically elected government. You cannot walk with your accountable leg when your democratic leg is still stationary.

My suggestion then is that we should certainly scrutinize Mr. Tung's proposal, but we should not adopt it until there is a democratic system of government in Hong Kong. But even if we were to approach the matter in that light, we cannot but find a number of problems with Mr. Tung's proposal.

First, under Mr. Tung's scheme, all the ministers will be recommended for appointment by Beijing, but the Legislative Council will not have any say at all in the matter. Contrast this with the US system where the President is democratically elected and yet his nominations of all important officials are subject to senate approval.

Second, Mr. Tung is given an unfettered power to recommend the removal of any minister at will, without the participation of the Legislative Council in any way. One natural consequence of this is that all ministers are likely to be yes-men or yes-women.

Third, the neutrality of the civil service, which has always been hailed as its greatest virtue, is being sacrificed.

Fourth, the role of the Executive Councillors appointed from the private sector will also be diminished.

Fifth, political parties and legislators will further be marginalized, for they will have to compete with ministers and their sub-ordinate civil servants in trying to win public support - which is not a bad thing at all except that the ministers have virtually unlimited resources in terms of both money and manpower.

Sixth, the Chief Executive will become a dictator, and there will not be any sufficient check and balance of his powers, particularly bearing in mind that any measure taken in the Legislative Council whether in the form of a motion of no confidence or any such motion or resolution is almost impossible to pass under the bicameral voting system stipulated in the Basic Law.

Last but most importantly, as was made clear by Mr. Tung in his answers to the Legislative Council last Wednesday, his proposal does not even guarantee that in future any minister who is responsible for a failed government policy and who has lost the confidence of the Legislative Council expressed in a motion of no-confidence will necessarily be sacked.

For all these faults with the proposed system, we must ask the following questions:

(1) What good is it to the people of Hong Kong if we are to give more powers to the Chief Executive and make all ministers accountable to him, when he, the head of the government, is not accountable to the people at all?

(2) Why should we sacrifice the neutrality of the civil service and turn civil servants into yes-men and yes-women?

(3) Who will take responsibility for failed government policies, such as Mr. Tung's target of 85,000 as the number of residential flats to be built every year in Hong Kong and his subsequent and unilateral abandoning of it?

(4) Who will take responsibility for the decision of selling the Pokfulam prime residential site to Mr. Richard Li, the younger son of Mr. Li Ka Shing who was Mr. Tung's former partner and close personal friend, without going through the normal bidding procedure at a public auction?

So we must say to Mr. Tung: "Please don't rush when your democratic leg is not ready."

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