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Making the worst of A bad situation
Paul Lin
1/25/2003



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'As Tung bragged at the Legislative Council about how hard he has worked, legislators asked him: "Have you considered resigning to make room for better men with new thinking?"'

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa made his annual policy address on Jan. 8. This address was traditionally delivered in early October, allowing several months of preparation for revision before it became the guidelines for the new year. But Tung's rescheduling of the policy address seems to embody his idea of a "new government" following his re-election and the implementation of an "accountability system" for principal officials.

Tung had few achievements to boast of in his address. His accountability system has proven to be counterproductive. Mediocre and incompetent officials have failed to score any achievements. After 49 months, the unemployment rate has dropped very little and economic recovery has been slow in coming. Yet Tung took the opportunity to complain of hardships and sufferings.

Some scholars and democracy activists summed up Tung's address as nothing new. Multinationals tried to save Tung's face by saying that "no news is good news." Standard & Poor's expressed disappointment in his lack of
concrete plans to settle financial deficits, but said this did not warrant a downgrade of Hong Kong's ratings in the short term.

Of course, Tung no longer talks as big as before. He is desperate to shirk responsibility and please Beijing. He said that Hong Kong's past success took place mostly in the periphery, particularly due to China's inability to bring its own competitive edge into full play. He also said that Hong Kong's prosperity is mainly dependent on "the combined effects of surging asset values, wages and prices." That is to say, its prosperity as the "Pearl of the Orient" is false when deflationary pressure is extant.

Such statements completely blot out Hong Kong's free economy, a sound system of law and order and the efforts of the territory's residents who made it the "Pearl of the Orient."

According to opinion surveys conducted by the University of Hong Kong, Tung's popularity has risen from its lowest last month since his reelection. The reason is that he took the initiative to cut his salary and those of his principal officials by 10 percent. One taxi driver said that he almost dozed off while listening to Tung's policy address but got excited when he heard about the salary reduction. But some residents think that a 10 percent cut is not enough.

Rank-and-file civil servants are skeptical about Tung's salary reduction. After Tung cut the salaries of civil servants -- which led to a demonstration by 30,000 civil servants last year -- he was still full of praise for the bureaucrats in his Jan. 8 speech. Civil servants, however, suspect Tung may be planning to put more pressure on them by cutting the salaries of top officials.

How easy can it be for Tung to rule Hong Kong after losing the confidence of civil servants? Tung has also completely ignored the wish of Hong Kong residents to push for the development of democratic politics through a review of the government system.

To relieve the territory's huge deficit, Tung called for raising taxes. Financial Secretary Antony Leung came under criticism after saying that the government will tax high-wage earners. The fear is that the middle class with be targeted while conglomerates are spared.

Tung's policy address failed to boost the confidence of Hong Kong residents. It only advocated strengthening the integration of China's Pearl River Delta (Guang-dong, Hong Kong and Macau) but it did not provide a direction for how
to solve Hong Kong's economic problems. He also canceled the traditional practice of taking on air call-ins at a local broadcasting station, apparently fearing residents might demand an explanation from him.

As Tung bragged at the Legislative Council about how hard he has worked, legislators asked him: "Have you considered resigning to make room for better men with new thinking?" At that moment Tung seemed a little agitated and took down his eyeglasses.

He struck back by saying that the territory's problems are complex and cannot be solved by legislators taking potshots at him.

Having to solve complex problems comes with the job -- but how can a headstrong Tung, who is unable to properly manage his own company, possibly rule Hong Kong? If the role model of "one country, two systems" is falling apart, resigning from office as a gesture to show self-reproach should be natural for Tung. Of course, a dictator will not tolerate disobedience. In the end, he will have to rely on Article 23 of the Basic Law to deal with any subversive activities.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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