John Lee to make SAR govt more responsible, accountable

Come July 1, Hong Kong will be celebrating its 25th anniversary of its return to China.

For many, it’s a time to rejoice and to celebrate; but it’s also a time for reflection as we think ahead about where Hong Kong’s future lies.

In line with this special occasion — along with the advent of a new administration —chief executive hopeful John Lee Ka-chiu has put forward his three major policy directions that will form the pillars of his governing team’s policies.

First, he intends to win the public’s trust by promising to adopt a results-oriented governing style. This means eliminating time-consuming and tedious bureaucratic procedures that often delay government-policy outcomes, which hopefully will give the public a “sense of gain” with more timely results.

Second, Lee has ambitions for enhancing Hong Kong’s competitiveness. Various sectors of Hong Kong have taken a beating over the course of the pandemic — namely, its tourism and retail sector — and so Hong Kong needs to reassert itself and remake its image not only on the world stage, but within the country.

Third, Hong Kong’s foundation for development — namely, its rule of law and long-term stability — will be reinforced by Lee and his administration.

And although strictly speaking not the usual election manifesto as such, Lee has explicitly stated his intention to revamp the culture of the Hong Kong government. This new generation of government will not only become more responsible, but more accountable.

From the top down, every single public servant, regardless of their grade and rank, and regardless of whether they are politically appointed officials, civil servants, or government employees, will be answerable to the people of Hong Kong not only on their diligence but on the outcome of their input. This seeks to ensure that every member of the government works toward a common goal in an efficient, effective and timely manner and not just pushing papers.

This may sound like stating the obvious. But the public sector’s efficiency needs a shakeup that is long overdue. So much so that whoever assumes office come July, the culture of the Hong Kong government still needs to evolve with the times if we are to keep pace with the expectations of the general public and remain an international city that is competitive and at the same time one that operates under the principle of “one country, two systems”, “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” with a high degree of autonomy.

Since this overriding principle of “one country, two systems” was implemented nearly 25 years ago, Hong Kong and the central authorities and the local governments on the Chinese mainland have continued to abide strictly by this principle without veering off course.

The Basic Law, which was adopted on April 4, 1990, and came into force on July 1, 1997, is essentially a constitutional document. It’s the foundation of everything that we cherish in Hong Kong, including the rule of law by which our local authorities — namely, our special administrative region government — abide, and it provides for the executive-led governance in Hong Kong’s political structure.

Under Article 2 of the Basic Law, it is the National People’s Congress that authorizes the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to exercise a high degree of autonomy in accordance with the Basic Law, which is quite detailed in its 160 articles. Since 1997, the high degree of autonomy conferred onto Hong Kong comprises executive, legislative, judicial powers and powers to conduct certain external affairs, which are again spelled out in the Basic Law.

The “one country, two systems” arrangement is unique to Hong Kong and Macao. For example, on the question of the relationship between the executive authority and the legislature in Hong Kong, we have not adopted adversarial systems. Rather, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary are designed to be three branches of government to complement one another, with certain built-in checks and balances.

However, our executive branch has much wider powers, and their leading officials are appointed by the Central People’s Government, while members of the legislature and the judiciary are not. The executive is accountable to the legislature only in the following four areas: 1) implementing laws passed by the legislature and already in force; 2) presenting regular policy addresses to the legislature; 3) answering questions raised by members of the legislature; and 4) obtaining approval from the legislature for taxation and public expenditures. This is a short list under Article 64 and is exhaustive rather than open-ended — something that many “democrats” in the legislature failed to acknowledge or comprehend.

Our Basic Law has also allowed Hong Kong to operate as under a capitalist economy, and it will continue to do so but with the added benefits of having dutiful patriots at the helm.

On the question of the degree of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the notion that the central government looks after only defense and foreign affairs is of course too simplistic if one flips through the chapter in the Basic Law on “the relationship between the Central Authorities and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”.

A prime and recent example of China’s overall jurisdiction over Hong Kong’s affairs came in the form of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, passed by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which came into effect in June 2020.

Recently the question of electing the chief executive by universal suffrage has again raised its head. On this question, it is important to know that the Basic Law requires such candidates to be nominated by a broadly representative nominating committee — and not by “civic nomination”, as protesters who occupied the Central district in 2014 demanded as “indispensable”.

Indeed, the Basic Law also allows consultation, as well as election, as the other selection method.

All in all, while we celebrate the overall success of the HKSAR in the past 25 years, we must not forget that this has to be measured by the stipulations in each and every one of the 160 articles of the Basic Law. “One country, two systems”, “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” with a high degree of autonomy is no longer a broad principle. Since 1990, when the Basic Law was promulgated, it is enshrined and defined in detail by law, the Basic Law, which has to be observed by all.

The author is president of the think tank Wisdom Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.