Hong Kong opens a new chapter on Sunday after the election of the incoming chief executive, who aims to adopt a results-oriented approach within government and to unite society. In a series of talks with China Daily, foreign experts from different sectors discuss the first CE poll under the improved electoral system, the challenges faced by the new leader, and their expectations of the next administration.
Hong Kong chief executive candidate John Lee Ka-chiu (second from right) talks with local residents during his visit to West Kowloon Cultural District on Wednesday. (ANDY CHONG / CHINA DAILY)
1. Hong Kong will hold its sixth chief executive election on May 8. The election is the first CE poll under the improved electoral system. What do you think about that?
Grenville: The revised electoral system is designed to ensure that only people can stand for election who have the best interests of the city and the country at heart, and will not seek to undermine the “one country, two systems” policy by provoking confrontations with the central authorities or promoting the agendas of foreign powers. In other words, only people of goodwill can take up elected office, which is clearly prudent after the problems of the recent past. Although foreign powers used their proxies in the past to sabotage the political system from within, those days are now over, and, as a result of the electoral reforms, Hong Kong can now look forward to a far healthier future.
Allan: I am very positive about the improved electoral system of patriots governing Hong Kong. I believe in the past since the handover in 1997, the divisions within society created problems for every CE. I believe this new system will be able to bring more like-minded people together and unite HK people to achieve greater prosperity.
Richard: It is an important election. The single candidate has done a very good job of setting out policy priorities. The current government has had to deal with unprecedented headwinds: an actively dysfunctional legislature; a multimonth insurrection and the COVID-19 pandemic – all while the US ramped up its massive project to contain the rise of China. Overall, the current government has done a very good job in extremely difficult circumstances – creating strong foundations for the next Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government.
Mark: The new revamped electoral college to vote for the chief executive is far more representative than previously held. The 1,500-strong Election Committee in Hong Kong is three times larger than the US Electoral College, which votes in its president. And it is far more representative of its people. Practically every aspect of Hong Kong’s community is represented on the committee. It is people-based, not state-based, as in the US.
2. Changes to the electoral system were put in place to ensure having “patriots administering Hong Kong”. How do you perceive its necessity and impact on the city’s future development?
Allan: In the past LegCo was stuck. It was very difficult to get bills to pass because of the many filibusters, which caused great harm to governance and created a huge bottleneck preventing various bills from being passed quickly. The new system will unblock everything in LegCo and allow the prosperity of Hong Kong to continue.
Richard: Unfortunately, over an extended period of at least a decade, the pan-democrat opposition turned the Legislative Council into the most dysfunctional arm of SAR governance. And yet more dysfunction was promised on a most serious scale by the “35+ plan”. All of this was undermining Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. It had to be rectified – the opposition had long lost sight of what being a “loyal opposition” means. The new electoral system has introduced radical reforms – but this has been a response to a political situation which had become untenable. It has given Hong Kong an active and effective legislature.
Chandran: The discussion about patriots has been construed in many different ways in democratic countries. I don’t think anyone would say, “I’m leading this party because I don’t like the country and I’m gonna work against the country.” Standing in any democratic system, I don’t know why we have the discussion about patriots.
If you want to stand for CE, you have to express clearly that you are working for Hong Kong and also for the interest of the motherland. You cannot say you’re working for Hong Kong then constantly look to undermine China by cooperating and asking foreigners to sanction China. This is fair enough.
Mark: The electoral system had to change because it had been infiltrated by foreign forces seeking a Whitehall or US Congress system of governance. But every place is different, and one form does not fit all. The Basic Law provides for the ultimate aim of universal suffrage for our chief executive and the legislature, but change will be gradual and not forced upon us. With the introduction of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the new enlarged legislature, Hong Kong will now be governed by patriots and not lackeys of foreign governments.
3. Hong Kong’s electoral system has seen changes from time to time since its return to the country in 1997. But one of the constants in these changes is the criticism from the West on the efforts made by the central government and the SAR government. In your opinion, what’s their stake in Hong Kong’s electoral revamp?
Grenville: The CE electoral arrangements are very much transitional in nature, and the Basic Law stipulates that universal suffrage is the “ultimate aim”, and this has not been affected by the electoral revisions. Indeed, if hostile forces in the legislature, with foreign encouragement, had not blocked the government’s previous electoral reform in 2015, it would have been possible to have elected the CE by universal suffrage in 2017. Although they derailed that proposal, thereby retarding the city’s democratic progress, universal suffrage remains the objective, although it will now take longer to achieve.
Allan: The West obviously will continue to criticize Hong Kong as they feel that this will present a bad image to the world of China. The West does not understand the success of the Chinese system and portrays it in a negative light to their people. Hong Kong is part of China and the West should not interfere in Hong Kong’s future
Richard: The response of Western governments has, understandably, always been shaped by their own political perspectives.
Since around 2017, however, these responses especially from within the Anglo “Five Eyes” group have been fundamentally shaped by the US-led, intensifying, comprehensive project to contain the rise of China. Washington is boldly open about its aim to remain the dominant superpower and international rule-setter, indefinitely – whatever that takes. A number of leading US commentators firmly believe that a new Cold War is underway, directed at China – and this is a good thing.
Unfortunately, within this framework, all reforms in Hong Kong are labeled negatively as this serves the ultimate project to contain China. Hong Kong’s multimonth insurrection, from mid-2019, is meanwhile airbrushed from almost all mainstream Western retelling of that era – and that immensely destructive period is recast as “pro-democracy protests”.
Chandran: In most Western countries, a system that does not conform to the Western side and the democratic system will be criticized.
However, China has a different system and has to contend with most of the non-Western world. China’s system doesn’t have to be the same as the United States. China’s system works for China, and China must ensure what the government does, taking care of its people. We have to focus on improving things at home; then, the world will understand because the results will be very clear. Most of the non-Western world looks at the results of China and says there’s something here that’s working very well. I think Hong Kong’s electoral system is the fundamental test for this city.
4. What traits do you believe the city’s new leader should have? John Lee Ka-chiu has garnered nominations from over half of the Election Committee members to run for the election. Does this mean that he has wide acceptance among Hong Kong’s various sectors? How will such recognition help Lee’s administration if he is elected?
Grenville: Mr Lee must secure the support of over 50 percent of the members of the EC (751), which is a very broadly representative body, and this is also an important step on the road to ultimate universal suffrage, and should be viewed in that light.
Allan: I believe that many people in Hong Kong do not see John Lee as a CE because most of his life has been spent in the security field. Since he announced his candidacy, he has had many press conferences on a daily basis. His results-oriented ideas, bringing back the competitiveness of Hong Kong and addressing the city’s housing problems, are high on his agenda. He also advocates simplifying a lot of the bureaucracy which occurs in government and the civil service at the moment. Many people in Hong Kong are now beginning to understand and believe that he will be an advocate for change to make the lives of the people better. This also includes creating a better future for the youth. Hong Kong has been sorely lacking in all these areas and I believe once he puts a strong team together to work with him, these results can be achieved.
Richard: It is widely expected that John Lee will provide strong leadership. With the support he enjoys, he is well-placed to put together an effective team. The challenges facing the new government are immense, of course. Apart from those noted above, there are many other local matters calling for attention and the adverse external environment, driven above all by Washington leading the West (whether they like it or not) to contain the rise of China and, now, it looks, to prolong the terrible war in Ukraine, is worse than it has been in over 40 years.
Chandran: I think the first important thing is to make sure that they send a powerful message to Hong Kong that they work for the people of Hong Kong. I feel the central government may be looking for that kind of leader, too.
John Lee must represent the people of Hong Kong, and I think he should be fearless in this because I think this is what the central government wants. They want a chief executive for Hong Kong who says clearly what is the best for Hong Kong people and what Hong Kong people want. If you want chief executives simply to take orders, then there’s no good for the central government and no good for Hong Kong people. The leader tells the central government this is what people want and then comes to decisions together with the central government to solve Hong Kong people’s problems.
5. Do you think your sector can benefit from the proposals? What do you think of John Lee Ka-Chiu? Have you come into contact with him during his 40 years in public service?
Allan: I have known John Lee for many years and have always found him to be strong when he has to be and very open-minded at other times. He likes to listen and to solve problems in order to get results quickly. I believe this is because of his training in security. He also has the trust of China, which is very important for the CE. I am very confident that the next five years will present great growth opportunities for Hong Kong and will finally unite society.
Chandran: I’ve never actually had the pleasure of meeting Lee, and I wish him all the best. From the media, I know he is a decision-maker, tough, and committed to Hong Kong. He has to work to ensure he’s not a former police officer and his images are not just about being somewhat to do with security and law enforcement. Hopefully, he has political blood, and he understands not just to be an administrator. This is politics, and you need new optics and to contribute in a positive way.
Mark: Unfortunately, I never met John Lee during my 20 years in the civil service, but that was more than 27 years ago. But it is understood that he is a listener, and that is very important. His manifesto presented last week indicates he has talked and listened to a good cross-section of the community, and that can only augur well for the future.
6. Lee recently unveiled his political platform and three policy directions. What’s your take on them? Do you think your sector can benefit from the proposals?
Allan: I believe his political platform and three policy directions will benefit every sector in Hong Kong. At the moment Hong Kong suffers from too many regulations which are duplicated in many sectors and I believe his results-oriented policies will benefit every business and serve to increase efficiency. I also agree that making Hong Kong more competitive will continue to attract international businesses, including those from the mainland. This as well will bring new brainpower to Hong Kong which in the long run will help the economy to grow rapidly. John Lee has addressed almost every sector in Hong Kong and has also given a results timeline of 100 days. All of Hong Kong can only benefit from this.
Chandran: I think all of Hong Kong can benefit if his policies can be done. The housing problem is the No 1 economic problem in Hong Kong. If he takes care of the economic situation and the welfare of the people and then gives them better living conditions, things will be OK. I think we need good policies to restore Hong Kong and, importantly, get people to trust in the government. That’s the biggest thing.
Trust requires basically solving the economic problems of the people who have bad housing conditions. He needs the support of all of us. He cannot sit in a government office and think about what is happening. He needs to go out to meet people. Go to real people, and then build your trust.
Mark: Mr Lee’s proposals are very ambitious and far-reaching, and to achieve his objectives he is going to need the support of the civil service, the legislature and, of course, the public. His first reforms will be that of the civil service by streamlining departments and its overall structure. His objective will be harmony, for people and organizations to work together for the common goal — the betterment of Hong Kong and its inhabitants.
7. Because of the characteristics of Hong Kong’s election system, sometimes the CE election will be uncontested. Some people hold that such a mechanism undermines the fairness of the election. What’s your view on that?
Allan: I do understand that this election timing is very extraordinary because of omicron. ... It’s better to have one candidate in this circumstance. I believe in the future when there’s more time the government will go back to having more than one candidate.
Richard: Competition in elections does mean that opposing candidates can test one another – and this can be good. Western experience shows that, also, inevitably, such competitions inevitably shift the focus from policy debates to personal attacks. I hope we do move back toward a competitive chief executive election framework. Had the pan-democrat opposition not vetoed this in LegCo in 2015, that is what we would have had in 2017 – and 2022.
Under the current arrangement, even a sole candidate still has to present a comprehensive prioritized policy agenda , which is now being discussed widely – and they must secure a majority of votes. Politics is never perfect – anywhere. This election mode is working well for Hong Kong in the present circumstances – not least the consistently antagonist and disordered external circumstances faced by China – and the HKSAR – today.
Mark: One must always remember that Hong Kong is not an independent state. It is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China, and therefore Hong Kong’s leadership must be on the same wavelength as that of Beijing. That is common sense. During the past decade or more, there has been a slow erosion of patriotism in Hong Kong, brought about by the influences of foreign governments seeking to undermine the power of China. That has now, hopefully, been resolved.