As of yesterday, the total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide had reached 64,449 and is still on the rise. While the viral infection looks well controlled in Taiwan, epidemic control in Hong Kong appears to be chaotic. Panic seems to be spreading like a virus, with people clearing the shelves of supermarkets for daily necessities.
The panic buying not only covers masks, but also rice and toilet paper. While this might be a normal response given the abnormal circumstances, it raises questions about the problem of governance and the policymaking process in Hong Kong. The concern is how to solve the deadlock.
Very few Hong Kongers would deny that the territory has declined in the past 10 years, while some believe it has been falling since its handover to China in 1997.
What made Hong Kong unique and attractive was its openness to the world. The Basic Law promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy in all domestic affairs, except in matters related to national security and external relations. It also preserved its independent judiciary, which largely resembles that of the UK and was regarded as reliable.
In the absence of democracy, civil rights and freedoms, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, were largely inherited from former ruler Britain.Although Hong Kong was not democratized before 1997, governing legitimacy had always been considered of great importance, which meant that government decisions were more transparent, and public consultation and communication were emphasized.
Though sometimes gestures more than realities, the absorption of public opinion prior to 1997 showed people that the government was willing to listen and that voices could be heard.
All of that has been changed with a shift in the government’s approach in the past few years.
First, public consultation is misconstrued as a lack of capability to implement policies. A serious criticism about previous governments was that “they talked without making decisions and made decisions without implementing them.”
By contrast, the government now wants to show people that it is not hindered by public opinion, and that it can implement big, controversial decisions.
Obvious examples are numerous. Last year, the government announced that it was reclaiming 730 hectares of land in Lantau and on other small islands of Hong Kong, despite serious questions and controversies. Worse still, the decision was announced before a formal public consultation was completed. This has put a wedge between government decisions and the needs of society, and bolstered the impression that the government does not listen.
Second, to manifest its ability to rule, the territory’s chief executive seems to have the misguided notion that a strong government is one that resists opposition and can stand in the face of differing opinions. The government never compromises over its policy decisions, even when they are not supported by evidence and are irrational.
The chief executive seems to think that compromise is a sign of weakness, and appears to be paranoid about opposing ideas. As a result, she treats opposing ideas as enemies who must be defeated rather than trying to work together. An obvious example was her decision two years ago to refuse to implement a comprehensive retirement pension scheme, despite widespread social and expert support. This has strengthened her complacency, but further isolated her from the public.
Third, the chief executive rejects the principle of impartiality implemented under British rule and is advised only by people who agree with her. The best example can be seen in the Hong Kong Executive Council. Before 1997, the council was composed of highly reputable elites who are experts in their respective domains, while today’s council is not, because it does not reflect the diversity of voices or expert opinion. Instead of advising the government, the council has become a political vase — untrustworthy and good for nothing.
Finally, the dominating factor is China. The invisible hand of Beijing has extended to Hong Kong and “one country, two systems” poses a great risk. The China factor has distorted every one of the government’s social and political decisions, so much so that domestic policies must fit Beijing’s purpose.
For example, universal suffrage and democratization were aborted because China fears losing total political control, while investment opportunities must also cater to mainland capital. The China factor has biased almost every government decision, and has created a deep sense of mistrust, anger and frustration among the public, especially young people. A sharp binary division between pro-China and anti-China groups has emerged, and confrontation is inevitable.
These issues are societal and can be changed, provided the Hong Kong government takes the lead. The chief executive must recognize the damaging effect of her approach and be held accountable to the people of Hong Kong for what she has done.
Her best bet would be to apologize and stand down to allow Hong Kong to restart. Hong Kong cannot afford to keep falling.
A Bloomberg opinion columnist has said that Hong Kong “is showing symptoms of a failed state.”
The reasons include the government’s inability to protect its citizens, incapability to provide basic services during crisis situations and the loss of ruling legitimacy. While Hong Kong is, for the time being, not an independent state, the symptoms of a failing state are obvious. If people sit and wait, Hong Kong will certainly fall.
Sammy Chiu is an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Adrian Chiu is a doctoral candidate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
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