Tung needs full makeover to gain public confidence

South China Morning Post  |  Jul 1, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

Chill out, chief, give parties and learn about popular leadership from two past US presidents, suggests Sin-ming Shaw
By Sin-ming Shaw
IF THERE WERE a general election today, Tung Chee-hwa would lose by a landslide, beaten as convincingly as former United States president Jimmy Carter was by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Mr Tung's ratings are at an all-time low and even his ally, the Liberal Party, which had previously slavishly followed Mr Tung's wishes on how to vote in the Legislative Council, took to the streets recently to protest against his housing policy.

But who could beat Mr Tung in an election? The answer is no one. Beijing's support for him is total and no one could contest his job without Beijing's approval. Mr Tung should be congratulated for gaining that trust, for without it the relationship between the SAR and the mainland would have been far too unstable. Beijing likes predictability and Mr Tung has the predictable feudal values that the communist leaders share.

Mr Tung may not be a fast student, but he is aware of some of Hong Kong's pressing problems. He has promised to reform the SAR's deeply-flawed education system and to improve its depleted natural environment. If he could achieve these two objectives in his next term, history would be kind to his legacy.

However, Mr Tung must change his way of governing. The time is overdue for him to bring on board his own team. He has to articulate a vision, work closely with the legislature to shape an agenda, gain its support and then hold his cabinet responsible for executing such policies. Instead he packs his Executive Council with people short on talent, and sticks with an inherited colonial service that is unaccountable to the public.

As a former owner of a shipping company, Mr Tung was a loyal employer and his staff were seldom fired for incompetence. But as a public leader, his responsibility to the public must assume a higher priority than the careers of civil servants. Yet he protects them as if he had hired them himself and reacts to any criticism of them as if it was a personal attack.

His relationship with Legco is contentious. Mr Tung divides and subjugates it unnecessarily, turning the directly elected representatives into enemies. He relies on the pro-big business, pro-communist legislators with farcically small constituencies. But even those who normally dance to his tune now seem concerned by his paternalistic "I know better" attitude.

The art of good politics is to unify opposing viewpoints. The Chief Executive often treats the directly elected Democratic Party as if his differences with them were a contradiction between the "enemy and the people" - rather than that of "people to people" politics, to borrow a popular communist phrase.

Mr Tung will need the Democrats' help to restructure Hong Kong's economy and meet the challenge of globalisation, a process in which some segments of society will suffer so that all may benefit in the long run. To lead the way requires mobilising the people behind the Government, and the Democratic Party represents a large part of the people.

Mr Tung should learn from Jimmy Carter's embarrassing one-term presidency. Mr Carter, a former nuclear submarine commander, was considered the best-trained president ever to sit in the Oval Office at the White House. But he failed as a leader, despite impeccable integrity and intentions, because he never managed to gather the people behind him. He was a micro-manager who read everything, knew every detail, but missed the proverbial "forest for the trees".

By contrast, Ronald Reagan, his successor as president, was a B-grade movie actor who did not read much and gave wonderful parties. But he could articulate a vision that moved the people and Congress behind him to survive a painful bout of inflation, high interest rates and worrisome budget deficits. The end result was that Mr Reagan became one of the most popular presidents America ever had.

Mr Tung can still turn the tide. With his second term all but assured, he should avoid second guessing whether what he does in Hong Kong might displease his communist bosses in Beijing, since they have always given him a carte blanche - so long as he remains within the terms of the Basic Law. They have enough headaches running China without also having to solve the Chief Executive's local problems. He should relax, dress down, appoint good people, delegate, and give fun parties.

Hong Kong became what it is on the basis of less, rather than more, government. Even his direct boss, Premier Zhu Rongji, understands this as he leads the charge to join the global market, while reducing Beijing's role in the mainland economy.

Hong Kong does not have much time left to become first rate because it remains bloated with overpriced properties, which are not a sustainable source of wealth. The SAR needs a robust, diverse and creative community doing more interesting things than simply putting walls together, trading them among each other and calling on the Government to reduce supply, so that they can make money out of an artificial shortage. High property prices on that basis are false signs of growth and will condemn Hong Kong to economic mediocrity. Better education, fairer competition and an improved environment are the keys to healthy growth.

Hong Kong has a well-deserved reputation as a place where anybody can become a success. Many of the 30 tycoons recently summoned by Beijing to be told to support Mr Tung for a second term were poor refugees when they first arrived on these shores. Mr Tung should not let his Government become an instrument to pamper those who have made it rich. Instead he should ensure that society remains open and fair, so that everyone can have the same opportunity that those tycoons enjoyed.

Sin-ming Shaw is a private investor and a visiting scholar at Harvard University

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