South China Morning Post, October 2, 2001

Listen to the people, Mr Tung


By Martin Lee

Until a few weeks ago, the impression we got from senior government officials was not to expect any major proposals from Tung Chee-hwa in his next Policy Address to be delivered to the Legislative Council on October 10 - because no long-term policy proposals will be made until Mr Tung secures his second term of office in 2002, even though this is, of course, a foregone conclusion.

But after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States on September 11, the position has completely changed. For while the world is waiting to see what US troops will actually do in the days ahead, people are also worried about the next strike from the terrorists. No city is safe.

Every economy in the world has suffered since September 11, and Hong Kong is no exception. The economic downturn in Hong Kong has worsened and many more people in the SAR are worried about a possible pay cut or losing their jobs. The question is: as the non-democratically elected Chief Executive of Hong Kong, what can Mr Tung do?

At Mr Tung's last meeting with the Democratic Party on September 14, an event scheduled before the September 11 attacks, we made a concrete proposal to Mr Tung, which we believe was tailor-made for him. We urged Mr Tung to convene and chair an economic convention consisting of representatives from every sector of the community: senior government officials, political parties, economists, tycoons, chambers of commerce, trade unions, professionals, retired people and unemployed people.

The object of such an economic convention would be to try to secure a consensus from the community as to what is the best way forward for Hong Kong. As we told Mr Tung at the meeting, such a convention requires careful planning and patience on the part of the Government. But it is a proposal which is necessary and workable. It is necessary because Mr Tung must not let the general and widespread discontent among every sector of the community worsen. Mr Tung always stresses that his is an executive-led government, which means he must take the blame if the people he governs are dissatisfied with government policies.

Mr Tung is at a disadvantage compared to many other leaders in the world in that he has not been elected by the people. A leader who does not have the mandate of the people will find it much more difficult to lead them out of a crisis. US President George W. Bush provides a good contrast. He won the election last year by the smallest of margins, but he now has the massive support of the Americans during their most difficult period since World War II.

Mr Tung's biggest problem is that no matter how good his proposals are, no single sector of the community is likely to be fully satisfied with them. Everyone wants more, but Mr Tung cannot give more. This is compounded by the fact that the chief executive does not have a magic wand, and there is simply no way for Mr Tung to turn the economy around in a week, a month, or even a year.

No doubt, Mr Tung might find it necessary to say, like many other leaders in the world: "Let us sweat it out together - for we are in the same boat." But that would not impress the people of Hong Kong. Firstly, they do not feel Mr Tung and his senior officials are in the same boat with them - for civil servants have job security while everyone else faces the prospect of unemployment. Secondly, the people of Hong Kong did not choose Mr Tung to lead them, so why should they listen to him and tighten their belts? Thirdly, the people of Hong Kong do not believe Mr Tung cares for them, for he is perceived to be only looking after the interests of the property tycoons.

Thus, to win the support of the people who have not elected him, Mr Tung must show that he personally cares for them and actually listens to them. Not only that, he must show that he will not come to a final decision on anything important without first discussing it with them. He can only do this by holding an economic convention.

Mr Tung need not worry that people will be too demanding. For every time a participant at the convention asks for more on behalf of their sector, other participants will ask where the extra money will come from. This applies also to representatives of trade unions. And everyone knows that if profits tax and salaries tax were to be raised, that would adversely affect the whole economy of Hong Kong. Further, Mr Tung must realise that when people are not involved in any policy decision, they are much more likely to object to it. But when they are entrusted with the responsibility of making decisions, they will behave differently, and are more prepared to reach a consensus. If they cannot come up with a better proposal, they will have to take the one on the table.

I was told that our proposal for an economic convention is unlikely to find favour with Mr Tung and his senior officials because they will look upon it as "power-sharing". But since the people of Hong Kong did not give Mr Tung the power to govern them, why can't he work with them in making important decisions that affect all of them?

Surely, Mr Tung and his senior officials should look at it as "mandate-sharing". For when they work with the people and decide together, they will effectively have their mandate and therefore their support. Indeed, the process of consensus-building is more important than the final conclusions reached.

No one realistically expects a panacea from Mr Tung, whether he makes up his own mind about our future, as he has done so far, or whether he shares his thoughts with the people of Hong Kong in an economic convention. But the difference is this: if he makes up his own mind, even after wide consultation through senior government officials, he will not have the support of the people even though he might find sufficient support in our undemocratically constituted Legislative Council. And the consequence is that the discontent of the people will grow and their dwindling support for Mr Tung will plummet further.

If, on the other hand, decisions are made only at the end of an economic convention, the people of Hong Kong will understand that the consensus thus reached represents the best in the circumstances and will be prepared to sweat it out with Mr Tung and his senior officials, and the unanimous support of the Legislative Council would be guaranteed.

Surely, to lead the people of Hong Kong out of this crisis, Mr Tung can no longer rely on naked power. He needs the cloak of a mandate which he will only find by holding an economic convention.

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