By John Burns
The extradition bill governance crisis, arguably the worst in Hong Kong since the 1967 riots, resulted from an epic failure of leadership by our government and its advisors operating in a fundamentally flawed political system that disenfranchises most of the community.
The political system, an unreformed detritus of the colonial era, empowers a narrow economic and political elite, and includes a still-colonial era system of education and civil service from which this government emerged. We gloried in the “through train” in 1997, and we are living with the result today. This system disenfranchises most of us, who may not participate in selecting the CE, see our votes in LegCo elections devalued by functional constituencies, and when we do vote, see our elected representatives, probably justly, removed for misconduct. In such a system street protest is the only recourse.
In 2002 the government introduced the principal official accountability system, mostly to bring the civil service under the chief executive’s tighter control. In 2006 this morphed into the political appointment system, which significantly dropped the word “accountability” altogether. The Basic Law lays down that the government is accountable both to the central government and to the HKSAR (read, “the people”). Yet, it is precisely this accountability to the people of Hong Kong (rather than to a narrow group of business elites) that the government has ignored and continues to ignore. Our leaders see themselves as our guardians or trustees, and not our agents.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s press conferences (on June 15, 18 and July 9) reveal her unwillingness to own the crisis she created. From these, we understand that she understands effective leadership to be narrowly results-oriented with disastrous consequences this time, and that she sees her role is as our guardian, a throwback to the colonial days. We learn that the CE is comfortable ignoring key relevant voices from the community, such as lawyers in this case, because they were not part of her self-defined support base. No advisors apparently counselled otherwise. We understand that the government is comfortable pursuing citizens who engaged in violence in the protests, holding them to account, but not themselves, a move redolent with hypocrisy.
Our flawed political system provides that the government itself decides when and on what terms to hold itself to account to the people. As Executive Councillor Fanny Law pointed out, government leaders could resign voluntarily, but this is impractical because “good” leaders are hard to find. Indeed. Casting the net more widely would reveal that the people of Hong Kong are very talented.
So far, the statements and actions of government and its advisors serve to dig them deeper into a hole, which has increased mistrust, further undermined government credibility, and revealed the government’s isolation from the community. Pretending to return to normalcy, as the government is now apparently trying to do, with more “consultation” exercises following the old playbook, simply will not work. We have gone way beyond that.
Before we tackle the fundamental sources of the community’s discontent the government must take responsibility for the crisis it created. This is a prerequisite for re-building trust. First, the CE must immediately replace the two policy secretaries most directly responsible for failings that led us here, especially their incompetent (or absent) assessment of political risk. They are political appointees and have failed us miserably. Second, the CE should clean out the Executive Council echo chamber, which apparently did not carry out its duty to advise the CE on an appropriate course of action. An appointments system that focuses only on yes-men and women out of touch with the community has been a disaster.
Finally, as many have pointed out, to rebuild the community’s trust in the police, badly damaged by this government, we need an independent investigation into the violent protests of June 12 and how they were handled by the CE. Let us remember that the police are not independent agents but carry out the government’s instructions. Credible evidence exists of misconduct, sufficient to warrant such an investigation. Our current institutions for handling complaints against the police which overly rely on the police investigating themselves are fundamentally flawed.
Rebuilding trust and confidence in the HKSAR government is a necessary first step. Until the chief executive recognizes this, we are unable to move on.
John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU’s Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.