South China Morning Post, 06 August 2002

Public won't swallow big lie on accountability



By Martin Lee

There is little doubt, judging from Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's performance during his first term of five years, that he wants to be a strong leader.

But there is a problem. Mr Tung has no legitimacy: he is not elected by the people of Hong Kong. Indeed, according to a public opinion poll published shortly before his first term ended in late June, 61 per cent of Hong Kong people did not want him to have a second term.

But that did not matter. For Mr Tung has the mandate of heaven - or Beijing, which has given him a powerful tool, a legislature which is constituted to be pliant. Under the Basic Law, only 24 of the 60 legislators are democratically elected, although that number will grow to 30 in 2004, and could in theory grow even further in 2008.

There is still no guarantee the government will always have a majority of supporters in the Legislative Council if the government's proposals are blatantly unreasonable and even harmful to the community. So Mr Tung needed, and has since found, another tool - public opinion. He has been combining these two tools skilfully in dealing with a number of important matters.

It started with the right-of-abode issue in 1999. The government resorted to a big lie by claiming that unless the Basic Law was reinterpreted in Beijing, 1.67 million mainland children would come to Hong Kong within three or four years, with dire consequences for Hong Kong in terms of housing, schooling, hospital care, rising unemployment and so on.

That frightened the people of Hong Kong. A public opinion poll showed a large majority of the people supported the government's proposal to have the Basic Law reinterpreted in Beijing even though many of them knew such a step would seriously damage the rule of law. Thus, by the use of a lie, the government was able to generate strong public opinion which in turn enabled it to win majority support from Legco in doing something which the government, legislators and the people of Hong Kong all knew was harmful to Hong Kong. What a Pyrrhic victory for Mr Tung and his strong leadership.

More recent examples of Mr Tung's use of public opinion on a pliant Legco were in relation to the establishment of the accountability system for principal officials and the legislation to reduce the salaries of civil servants.

On both these issues, the majority of Legco members were originally against the government. But the public were on the side of the government, according to public opinions polls. And so some pro-government legislators were able to use public opinion as their excuse for changing their stance and supporting the government.

As the Chinese saying goes: ''Water can carry a boat, but it can also overturn it.'' So public opinion can carry the government, but it can also crush it. The recent penny-stock fiasco is a case in point. Why is the public clamouring for government officials to be responsible for the publication of a consultation paper to delist penny stocks which was not even prepared by the government?

The answer is to be found a few months back when the government was rushing the accountability system through Legco, and some normally pro-government legislators were unhappy with the system which was incomplete. To win them over, the government resorted to another lie which was contained in the first question asked in a survey conducted for the government: ''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?''

Sixty-five per cent of the people polled supported it, but clearly in the mistaken belief that such a system would indeed produce ministers accountable to them. It was a mistaken belief because the accountability system only made the ministers accountable to Mr Tung. But the government cannot now tell the people that it has deceived them and ask the people not to hold the minister concerned responsible.

The appointment by the Financial Secretary, Antony Leung Kam-chung, of a two-member panel to investigate the matter with very limited terms of reference was intended no doubt to deflect and cool the public's demand for their pound of accountable flesh from Frederick Ma Si-hang, the Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury, and/or Mr Leung. But the problem will not go away.

For while Mr Tung and his government might have got away with their big lie in 1999 in relation to the right-of-abode issue, they are certainly not going to get away with the 2002 lie on accountability. And so long as Mr Tung has his ministers, they will have to be accountable to the people of Hong Kong.

Of course, Mr Tung can ignore the result of the report by the two-member panel, even if it should find fault with some government officials. He can likewise ignore Legco whatever it may say or do in the light of that report. He can also ignore public opinion no matter how strong it may be. For constitutionally, he is only accountable to Beijing, and his ministers are only accountable to him.

There is just one problem. Mr Tung will have thereby turned his people against his government, and his government against the people of Hong Kong.

Mr. Martin Lee is the Chairman of the Democratic Party and a democratically elected legislator

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