Hong Kong has now entered its fifth year as a special administrative region of China with Beijing-selected Tung Chee-hwa as its Chief Executive. And with the expected passage of the Chief Executive Election Bill into law today, Mr Tung can look forward to another term of five years from July 1 next year, since he has already secured the open support of the top leaders in Beijing. Indeed, it is difficult to see who else would run against him. Even so, the people of Hong Kong should take stock of the situation and see how Hong Kong has fared under Mr Tung during these past four years.
We are repeatedly told by Mr Tung and his senior civil servants that nothing has changed since Hong Kong became an SAR on July 1, 1997. But this is blatantly untrue. The whole ethos of governance has changed.
Instead of the rule of law, which was supposed to continue since it was enshrined both in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, Hong Kong now hasthe rule of man, or more accurately, the rule of a patriarch - Mr Tung. Perhaps not surprisingly, a recent survey of civil servants found that 74 per cent of respondents lacked confidence in Mr Tung's administration.
In the past, there were conventions and traditions which the Hong Kong Government adhered to. One such convention was that the Government would only formulate a new policy after due deliberation and consultation with the private sector through various advisory councils and experts in that field. Once a policy was adopted by the Executive Council, it would be binding on the Government and the Governor.
In theory, however, as the colonial Governors were only accountable to the British Government through the minister responsible for Hong Kong, they could do anything they liked so long as they continued to enjoy the confidence of their London masters. But in practice, and as a convention, no Governor would act contrary to existing policies.
In other words, not only did the Governors work within the system, they were very much a part of it. In this way, there was mutual trust between the Governors and their top civil servants. But to Mr Tung, these conventions and traditions are relics of the British colonial system, and must be consigned to history now that Hong Kong is part of China. They are to be rejected as unnecessary constraints on him, so that he can rule Hong Kong like his own family company. The key word for his administration is no longer trust, but loyalty.
Let us remind ourselves of a few important decisions made by Mr Tung's administration in the past few years. First, the Government's 1999 decision not to auction the residential prime site at Pokfulam but instead to sell it by private treaty to Richard Li Tzar-kai's Pacific Century Cyberworks. When challenged, Kwong Ki-chi, then Secretary for Information Technology and Broadcasting, contended that the site was an indivisible part of the Cyberport project. No one in the property sector believed him.
Then came Mr Tung's surprising revelation during a television interview last year that his first ever major policy decision, to have 85,000 residential units built every year, had in fact been abandoned two years previously. Dominic Wong Shing-wah, Secretary for Housing, was unable to comment on that statement because he too had been taken completely by surprise since he and the rest of the Government were still trying to meet that target. This is a unique case of an autocratic ruler trying to will away an embarrassing policy retrospectively by make-believe.
More recently, Mr Tung appeared to have again surprised his senior civil servants when he said, during a Question and Answer session in the Legislative Council on June 14, that the Falun Gong was "undoubtedly an evil cult"; but was unable, when challenged, to produce any evidence to substantiate such an attack on the Falun Gong followers in Hong Kong. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the Chief Secretary for Administration, found it necessary to "re-interpret" that unfounded allegation during a speech to the Foreign Correspondent's Club on June 21. He said it was Mr Tung's own definition of an evil cult, implying that it was Mr Tung's personal opinion, as opposed to the Government's. Regrettably, Mr Tsang's office had to issue another statement later that evening trying to reconcile the two clearly conflicting views of Mr Tung and Mr Tsang.
Then came Mr Tung's open intervention in the labour dispute between Cathay Pacific and its pilots, by clearly siding with the employers at a time when both sides were still in negotiation, thus breaking the tradition that the Government must be seen to be neutral in all labour disputes.
Most recently, Mr Tung's decision to give a Grand Bauhinia Medal, the highest award of the SAR, to Yeung Kwong, one of the leaders of the 1967 riots, shocked the community, because many innocent people had suffered during those riots. It appears that Mr Tung's decision was not based on the recommendation of the Honours Committee chaired by Chief Secretary for Administration.
These are but a few of the more obvious examples of Mr Tung's patriarchal style of government, which will now continue for another six years. I do not doubt for a moment that Mr Tung made each of these and other decisions because he was convinced that it was the right thing for him to do at the time. Indeed, as he said in the Legislative Council, his remarks on the Falun Gong were made after careful consideration.
Perhaps the fault does not lie so much with him as a leader, as it does with the system that put him there, enabling him to rule Hong Kong as it was ruled in the days when people believed in the divine rights of kings.
So, why couldn't he sell a prime site to the son of his good friend? Why couldn't he retrospectively drop a housing policy that didn't work anymore? Why couldn't he condemn Falun Gong which had already been branded as an evil cult by his masters in Beijing? Why couldn't he tell the Cathay pilots off for making a nuisance of themselves? And finally, why couldn't he award a medal to someone who could get him some votes at the next election, even though many suffered as a result of the 1967 riots?
If his Secretaries and other senior civil servants do not give him their fullest support, they will have to go. To this end, the Chief Secretary for Administration will soon start a so-called system of accountability by putting all Secretaries on fixed-term contracts, ensuring they know they will be dropped if they no longer enjoy the absolute confidence of the Chief Executive. The question is not whether we like Mr Tung as a leader, or his style of government. The question is can Hong Kong afford to have six more years of his outdated style of government and still remain prosperous and stable?