Lee to make a difference with strong governance, collective efforts

John Lee Ka-chiu unveiled on April 29 his manifesto for the Sixth-term Chief Executive Election of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, to be held next month. As Lee is the only candidate in the election, his platform is perceived by some as a policy address of the next chief executive and, thus, has drawn a lot of attention and interest. Lee will be held accountable for his performance in fulfilling the pledges made in the manifesto if he eventually gets the top job. This explains why he’s very cautious in putting forward his policy proposals, and abstains from presenting overly specific measures.

If Lee indeed gets the job, he’ll find that, in several ways, governance in the HKSAR would be less difficult and onerous than before. Firstly, his administration would get unflinching support and assistance from the central government, particularly in safeguarding national security, economic development and improving people’s livelihood. Secondly, he would operate in the newly configured political context of “patriots governing Hong Kong” whereby patriots in the community and the patriots-dominated Legislative Council will support his government wholeheartedly, while serving as its well-intentioned critics. Thirdly, the policy package Lee has presented is solidly grounded in the public consensus that has been formed over many years of research, discussions, as well as lessons learned from experiences in policy implementation. His policy package covers a broad spectrum of issues, such as governance, quality of education, national education, poverty, the needs of the disadvantaged, the problems stemming from an aging society, healthcare, opportunities for upward mobility for young people, strengthening pillar industries, particularly finance, promoting new industries like innovative technology, building critical infrastructures, increasing Hong Kong’s international competitiveness, and developing closer economic ties between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. Fourthly, Lee’s administration, unlike those of his predecessors, would no longer be hampered by hostile, radical opposition forces. The National Security Law for Hong Kong and the revamped electoral system have ensured that these forces can no longer operate within the governance structure, more specifically, the Legislative Council, and therefore cannot wreak havoc on Hong Kong’s governance. 

But, at the same time, Lee’s administration would be confronted with a very turbulent and grim external environment featuring deglobalization; increasing hostility toward China, including Hong Kong, from the West; rampant inflation; worldwide economic recession, various forms of protectionism; a fracturing international supply chain; regional and global financial crises; the yet-to-contained COVID-19 pandemic or new pandemics; and economic slowdown on the Chinese mainland.

Internally, the already grave problems of Hong Kong’s sluggish economic growth, the city’s narrow industrial base, industrial concentration, professional monopolies, widening economic inequalities, fiscal deficits, unemployment, poverty, shortage of upward mobility opportunities for young people, inequality of educational opportunities, and deficiencies in the healthcare sector have been exacerbated by riots and pandemics in the past few years. These will aggravate the problems to be encountered by the new HKSAR administration, arising from the deteriorating external environment.

Both the internal and external environments are breeding grounds for plenty of small and big crises in Hong Kong in the days to come, and they will severely test the new administration’s capability and wisdom in foreseeing and overcoming crises.

To utilize the favorable factors to the fullest extent and better cope with the unfavorable ones impacting Hong Kong’s governance, fulfill his many policy pledges, and to cope more competently with the foreseeable crises, Lee rightly sees the need to change the way the HKSAR is to be governed. And, it’s precisely the new mode of governance that he’s prepared to adopt that will distinguish his administration from previous administrations.

In his manifesto, Lee promises that his government will be more innovative, more ready to bite the bullet in pursuing institutional and policy reforms, more inclined to holding principal officials and civil servants accountable, more determined to measure the government’s performance by its policy achievements, more prepared to adopt collective decision-making, more willing to conduct policy research, more capable of overall coordination of the government’s actions, more competent in foreseeing and managing the many impending crises that Hong Kong will confront, and more connected to people from all walks of life.

More specifically, in pursuing a new model of governance, Lee proposes to reorganize the governmental structure to ensure a more rational and effective division of labor among policy bureaus, strengthen strategic policy research and overall policy coordination, adopt a results-oriented approach within the government, and set up clear targets and key performance indicators for selected tasks within the first 100 days of the new administration. He will also order each government department to conduct an internal review of its operational methods, administrative processes, and relevant legislation to reduce unnecessary or redundant procedures, improve efficiency and modernize. Moreover, to better cope with the crises that are expected to hit Hong Kong, Lee vows to strengthen the emergency response capability of his administration, which entails the establishment of a new “mobilization protocol” for the government, the setting up of an interdepartmental Emergency Response Unit to promptly respond to any emergency, the creation of a command center under direction of a senior official as needed, and conducting drills and training to ensure the operational readiness of the Emergency Response Unit. Even though it’s not mentioned in Lee’s manifesto, the new administration will likely have a well-staffed and resourceful policy research unit. This unit will work closely with the policy bureaus to promote policy innovations and secure better policy coordination. In addition, this unit will enhance the SAR government’s capability in studying and coping with the impact on Hong Kong caused by the unrelentingly changing global, national and local contexts.

Given the many serious challenges Hong Kong and its government will face in the days ahead, Lee understands it’s impossible, as well as inadvisable, that they’re tackled by the government, in its current state, alone as it does not have sufficient talent and resources to carry out the tasks. Therefore, it’s right that Lee has called for more joint or collective efforts within the government and between the government and the community. In his election manifesto, Lee has vowed to foster a team culture of “we and us” within the government. This means not only that the leadership team of the government must be highly united, sharing clear purposes, with strong esprit de corps, and animated by a strong sense of mission and devotion to the nation and Hong Kong. It also calls for collective decision-making in building up a sense of solidarity at the center of the government. It also implies that some reforms in the civil service are desirable and unavoidable. The aims of these reforms are to enhance the leadership team’s ability to make sure that civil servants are more disciplined, have a greater team spirit, are more incentivized to faithfully carry out the policies and decisions of the government, and get punished for dereliction of duty.

As Lee understands it, his administration has to be able to mobilize and organize talents and resources of the community and the private sector to support the government’s work, especially in situations where the means at the disposal of the government are inadequate or where an emergency is so serious that the community has to be greatly involved in resolving them. To build up the collective problem-solving capacity of Hong Kong as an entity under the government’s leadership, a dense network connecting the government with the people has to be built as the existing “network” is weak, loose and somewhat defunct. In his election manifesto, Lee rightfully pledges to strengthen the government’s presence and work at the district level and enhance communication with district grassroots organizations.

Besides strengthening the local and grassroots networks, Lee intends to tighten his administration’s ties with members of Hong Kong’s elite community. In the past, the advisory system had served the government quite well by enabling it to draw upon the support of the elite group by incorporating them “unofficially” into the governmental machinery. These advisory bodies, numbering in the hundreds, also served as a useful incubator for political talent. Unfortunately, the advisory system had been, practically speaking, deserted by the government well before Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. Given the imperative need for the new administration to enlist and mobilize support from the elite in the community to bolster its problem-solving capability, the advisory system has to be rejuvenated. It is thus quite appropriate for Lee to indicate his administration’s intention to fortify the system of advisory committees with the goals of developing “administrative talents who love our country and Hong Kong”, attracting “capable people from all sectors of society to serve on the government committees and advisory bodies,” and increasing “governmental capabilities and capacity”.

Overall, even though Lee in his election manifesto proposes to bring innovations to major policies, it’s undeniable there are many policy continuities between his administration and its predecessor. However, people are not happy with the previous administration not because of its policies, but its inability to implement them effectively and promptly. If Lee succeeds in putting in place his measures to enhance the governance capability of his administration and better mobilize the resources within and without the government to bolster its work, the policies he has proposed can be executed much better and can achieve the promised results, compared with his predecessors. In short, Lee can be a successful chief executive if he can harness fully and competently the talent and resources of both the governmental machinery and the Hong Kong community through his new model of governance. And, it’s primarily in effective governance that Lee can distinguish himself as a competent leader of the HKSAR.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.