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Above all, Hong Kong wants good governance

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The massive public demonstrations by students and young members of the middle class that have roiled Hong Kong in recent weeks are ostensibly demands for democracy.

But they actually reflect frustration among a population that has been poorly governed by a succession of leaders who were picked by China’s central government more for their loyalty than for their competence.

In fact, the recent near-uprising was the culmination of a long series of demonstrations since Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, after Chris Patten, the last British governor failed to persuade China to allow Hong Kong to establish a genuine democratic government.

In China’s view, Patten’s position was hypocritical, even offensive, given that the British had ruled Hong Kong autocratically. China believed that it could easily manage the same kind of “executive-led” government that had served Hong Kong well for 150 years under the British.

In order to placate Hong Kong’s restive population — which included many refugees from China — a “one country, two systems” policy was embedded in the region’s constitution, promising Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy,” except in foreign and defense affairs for 50 years.

Indeed, Hong Kong enjoys many freedoms that the rest of China lacks, including a judiciary system that is guided by British common law and independent from the executive branch.

China has yet to follow through on its second promise: that Hong Kong would elect its chief executive by “universal suffrage” by 2017. Instead, a committee — initially comprising 800 members, but since expanded to 1,200 — selects the chief executive in accordance with the Chinese government’s wishes.

Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was widely viewed as a wise choice. The Western-educated heir to a shipping fortune, and unusually well connected with the global elite, Tung was thought to be a conservative, thoughtful, cosmopolitan man imbued with liberal values and free of ties to the powerful families that dominated the real estate industry in the country.

This perception could not have been more wrong. Tung turned out to be shallow, radical in his views, more chauvinist than China’s top leaders, and prone to rash decision-making on important policies with wide-ranging social and economic consequences.

He forced out his competent chief secretary, Anson Chan, a veteran Hong Kong civil servant, for her colonial background, thereby signaling his mistrust of the entire civil service that the British had created.

It did not take long for Hong Kongers to realize that their new leader harbored a deep — and deeply flawed — “patriotic” worldview that regarded Western “values” as unsuitable for Hong Kong, the first globalized Chinese city in modern history.

But it was not until Tung tried to ram through draconian internal-security legislation that many of Hong Kong’s citizens began to feel that they were being overtaken by the repressive governance from which they were supposed to be exempt. Under Tung’s leadership, mass protests became a frequent sight in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government also belatedly recognized that Tung was a liability. In 2004, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao unceremoniously dressed down Tung on live television. Three months later, Tung resigned for “health reasons” and was elected vice chairman of the largely symbolic Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Tung’s successor, Donald Tsang, was chosen reluctantly. He was a senior civil servant and seemed to be the only technocrat who could credibly hold together Hong Kong’s disaffected civil service, which China knew was indispensable to governing the territory, regardless of its British heritage. Yet Tsang brought his own weaknesses to Hong Kong’s government — most notably greed.

Tsang, who enjoyed spending time with the wealthy on their yachts and in their private suites, pursued a restrictive land policy that boosted real estate values — and thus the wealth of the land-owning tycoons.

Prices rose so high, however, that real estate became accessible only to the very well-off, such as the families of high officials from the mainland. This kind of corrupt behavior earned Tsang a disgraceful exit from government.

Next came Leung Chun-ying, the current governor. Leung — who was not China’s first choice for the position — inherited a mess. But he did not do himself any favors with his Cabinet choices, many of whom had mediocre records that indicated corruptibility.

One of them, Paul Chan Mo-po, was tasked with managing Hong Kong’s land-supply policy, despite a history of corruption in his personal property transactions.

Worse, Leung pushed forward an unpopular plan to introduce “patriotic education” to Hong Kong, stoking fear among students of a China-dictated brainwashing.

After the failure of three consecutive Chinese-selected leaders to address Hong Kong’s concerns, it is no wonder that Hong Kong’s citizens are increasingly seeking to loosen China’s grip on their government.

But for the Chinese authorities, this movement reflects an unacceptable challenge to China’s sovereignty.

In this sense, Hong Kong is locked in a vicious circle — and it is up to China’s government to break it.

The fact is that Hong Kong’s citizens understand that they need China, and they have no interest in subverting the central government — nor do they have the power to do so.

Their demands for democracy are simply calls for good governance. They believe that free and fair elections represent their best chance of having a competent leader — someone like Patten, China’s former nemesis, who is remembered fondly in Hong Kong.

China’s government is doing itself a disservice by demanding that Hong Kong’s citizens bow before their sovereign, while blaming “outside hostile forces” for spurring some kind of unconstitutional rebellion.

Instead, it should focus on the problems created by the chief executives that it chose for the wrong reasons, and it should resolve the underlying governance problems that the demonstrations reflect.

Sin-ming Shaw, a former fellow at Oxford University, was, most recently, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. © 2014 Project Syndicate