RTHK "Letter to Hong Kong"

by Martin Lee

Broadcasted on 02 June 2002 on Radio 3, Radio Television Hong Kong

After more than 9 hours of intensive debate during last Wednesday and Thursday, the HKSAR Government obtained the endorsement of the Legislative Council to push ahead with its so-called Accountability System for Principal Officials and have it in place on 1 July when Mr. C. H. Tung will be sworn in before President Jiang Zemin for his second term of office as the Chief Executive of the HKSAR. Right after that, all his ministers or principal officials will also swear their allegiance to the HKSAR; but they know only too well that their real allegiance will be to Mr. Tung, who alone can retain them or sack them.

The result of the debate was, of course, a foregone conclusion in a legislature which is so undemocratically constituted. Now, the accountability system of Government was first raised by Mr. Tung in his Policy Speech to LegCo in October 2000 in the aftermath of the "short piles" scam in public housing when LegCo passed a motion of no confidence in June 2000 against the Director of Housing, Mr. Tony Miller, which motion originally also included the Chairman of the Housing Authority, Ms. Rosanna Wong, who avoided the issue by tendering her resignation a few days before the motion was debated. In the event, Mr. Tung decided to ignore LegCo's motion and public opinion by allowing Mr. Miller to keep his job even up to now.

Thus, LegCo and the public of Hong Kong were hoping the Government would establish a system of accountability, under which ministers will, in future, take responsibility for similar mistakes. But this is NOT what Mr. Tung's accountability system is about. For he repeatedly told LegCo when introducing that system that if in future LegCo should pass another motion of no confidence on any of his ministers or principal officials, he would not necessarily sack his minister or ask him to resign.

There was a good reason for this. For if we look at the major policy blunders made by Mr. Tung's Government during his first term of office: the re-interpretation of the Basic Law, the non-prosecution of Sally Aw, the commitment to build 85,000 residential units per year and his subsequent nonchalant scrapping of that commitment, the cyber-port saga in which the Pokfulam residential prime site was sold by private treaty to the son of Mr. Li Ka Shing, a former business partner and a close personal friend of Mr. Tung, the interference of academic freedom in the Robert Chung poll saga, and so on, which of these had nothing to do with Mr. Tung? So how could he have sacked the principal official concerned if he or she had merely carried out his instructions and had taken the blame for it?

Quite apart from that fundamental flaw, the proposal was a rushed job. The Government consulted hardly anyone, including the senior government officials many of whom might be invited to become ministers. LegCo was not given sufficient time to deliberate on the proposal which involves fundamental changes to the existing civil service, and which in the view of many legislators including myself, may well have constituted a breach of the Basic Law. In short, the Government was not ready. LegCo was not ready. And the public simply did not know what the system was all about.

But Mr. Tung has set 1 July as the deadline; for the emperor wants to put on his new clothes at the swearing-in ceremony. And so Mr. Tung and his minions found it necessary to play their public opinion trump card, knowing that once public opinion was shown to be on their side, it would make it much easier for their allies in the LegCo to vote in support. Thus, a poll was commissioned by the Government with AC Nielsen. And altogether 11 questions were asked of the unwary public.

Question No. 1, which set the scene, was: "Do you support or not support the HKSAR Government's proposal to introduce the Accountability System for Principal Officials to enhance its accountability to the public?" The result was: 65.4% supporting, 14.5 % not supporting, with 20.1% of "Don't know or No comment".

With the key question framed in that particular way, some of my colleagues wondered why only 65.4% supported it, and why anyone at all would not support it or had no comments to make? Some professional pollsters have since criticised the question as leading, that is, suggesting a certain answer.

I don't agree with that. It's not a leading question. It's just misleading. For how could the Government still claim that this system would enhance its accountability to the public when Mr. Tung himself has told LegCo in no uncertain terms that had there been another motion of no confidence passed on any of his ministers in future, that minister might not necessarily be sacked or asked to resign?

Indeed, the only thing this system guarantees is the complete loyalty of the ministers to Mr. Tung, even at the expense of sacrificing public interest; and the only thing this system enhances is the power of the Chief Executive. And with more power given to the Chief Executive who is not elected by the people of Hong Kong, Mr. Tung can only be less accountable to the people whom he lords over, and not more.

When the Accountability System for Principal Officials takes effect on 1 July, it will have a very important effect on our most senior civil servants who until now have what is called "iron rice bowls" - in other words, under the present system, they will not lose their jobs by voicing dissenting views if they believe a particular policy proposed is not in the public interest. Mr. Tung may not have liked some of his senior civil servants arguing with him, but he can't sack them. But now that the rice-bowl is breakable under the new system, how many of his ministers would say anything in future which might possibly displease the boss?

Of course our senior civil servants will protest their innocence till their faces turn blue. But is it realistic to expect any of them to argue with Mr. Tung as before? This, however, is not the end of the matter. Indeed, it is only the beginning of what is to come when the new system is in place.

In winding up the debate on Thursday, the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Mr. Michael Suen, promised that there will be more fireworks in LegCo debates in the new regime. But this will not be the only change when ministers will sell and defend policies not only to LegCo but also to the public. I have absolutely no problem with that. But in light of what happened recently, in particular, in light of the tactics employed by the SAR Government. I have every reason to fear that truth and integrity will no longer be part of Mr. Tung's new style governance. But what is more, from now on, every minister will sing high praises to the emperor about his beautiful new clothes from dawn till to dusk.

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