I would normally be disposed to deal gently with Mr Tung Chee-hwa, who has reached a venerable age and long since left the centre of the local political stage. But Mr Tung wants to continue to be a player, and in that case he must expect to be tackled occasionally. This brings us to a recent speech in which Mr Tung opined that the job of the Chief Executive was impossible because he did not have a dependable majority in Legco.
The implication of this, eagerly picked up by the regime’s local running dogs, is that there should be a ruling party, of which the CE is a member. Or, in a less dramatic version of the same prescription, the Liberal Party should be persuaded to join the ranks of dependable lobby fodder currently filled by the DAB and its trade union alter ego.
The unkind thought which springs to mind at this point is that Mr Tung’s view of the matter may be explained by his personal history. If you have made a frog’s breakfast of a job it is a comforting thought that the job was impossible in the first place so nobody could have done any better. The kinder thought is that Mr Tung has misunderstood the whole purpose and tenor of the Basic Law. Clearly having a leader with a following in the legislature works, more or less, in countries where the ruling party is periodically dumped on the pavement and replaced with the former opposition. But it was never intended that Hong Kong should have a system of this kind.
A permanent ruling party, on the other hand, is a recipe for corruption, stagnation and autocracy. We do not need a local version of Robert Mugabe. The Basic Law involves an attempt at an intermediate model, in which there is no ruling party, but the government is subjected to checks and balances. That is to say it is subordinate to the law and courts, and it depends for its finances on a legislature whose composition it does not control.
The closest analogy, perhaps, is with the US system, where the president depends for money and legislation on a Congress in which his party may not, and often does not, enjoy control. The government has to build coalitions to support its requirements. A majority for one proposal may not be the same people as the majority assembled for another proposal. This is hard work but it meets the requirement dear to the framers of the US constitution, which was to ensure that power was divided and diffused, so that tyranny would be prevented.
Returning to Hong Kong, perhaps it was a pity that Mr Tung was put on Exco for the term of the last governor. This suggested to observant citizens that the first election of a Chief Executive for the SAR was fixed, and known to be fixed by both governments years before it took place. Also it exposed Mr Tung to the way colonial Hong Kong worked, and gave the misleading impression that this was the way it would continue to work after the handover. In the colonial arrangement most legislators – indeed for many years all legislators – owed their positions to appointment and felt a corresponding duty to support the Governor who had appointed them. This did not entirely stifle dissent. There was an Office of Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils (Umelco for short) in which the appointees mixed and mingled, so that a lot of issues were discussed informally. The actual Legco proceedings were a public ritual. Serious discussions took place in private.
The framers of the Basic Law tried very hard to ensure that the government would have a tame majority but clearly in a system in which all members were produced by some sort of election this could not be guaranteed. This, however, has not stopped SAR governments from taking Legco for granted, and supposing that whatever they wanted to do would sail through eventually.
The problem which Mr Tung has overlooked is that the governments produced by this system made bad choices. The visceral impression that the system was not working for most people was eventually substantiated by two thoughtful books: one which showed that the Hong Kong SAR government was colluding with a small group of rich families, and one which showed that the government had at the same time surreptitiously dismantled the rudimentary welfare state reluctantly erected by colonial-era civil servants. The routine rebuttals were not convincing. Often the government added insult to injury by announcing a bad policy, holding a grossly fixed “consultation” about its merits, and then claiming that it was doing what we all wanted.
There is also a problem with political pollution wafted down over our northern boundary. China’s representatives in Hong Kong are often correct in supposing that things are not going well. They erroneously suppose that the solution to this problem is more input from them. Mr Tung might usefully use his position in the corridors of power to point out to Beijing’s local representatives that the problem for Chief Executives of the Hong Kong SAR is not that they have little control over Legco, but that they have little control over themselves. It would be surprising if Mr CY Leung was a popular success: he has no talent for politics and is hampered by a propensity for weasel words and sleazy friends. But his fatal flaw in the eyes of most Hong Kong people is the perception that he is a ventriloquist’s dummy sitting in the lap of the Liaison Office.