Will Carrie Lam deliver a business-as-usual policy address or will she show political courage to go for big bang measures?

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 04.10, 15/10/2019
Will Carrie Lam deliver a business-as-usual policy address or will she show political courage to go for big bang measures?

The stirring words of Hong Kong's leader might be considered fit for the crisis facing the city today.

"People became more nervous about their future. Investors have shown signs of being more cautious in assessing the territory's prospects. But this is not the first crisis that Hong Kong has had to confront.

"When we have faced difficulties in the past we have emerged with new confidence and strength.

"The plans that I have outlined today demonstrate your government's commitment to the future of Hong Kong. They are a major investment for our future prosperity."

But these are not passages from Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's third policy address, scheduled to be delivered to the Legislative Council on Wednesday. They are part of a speech by then Hong Kong governor David Wilson in his annual address on October 11, 1989, four months after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

David Wilson unveiled ambitious initiatives in a groundbreaking policy address. Photo: Gary Cheung

As Lam prepares to deliver her own address amid violent anti-government protests which have rocked Hong Kong for more than four months, all eyes are on how she should respond and whether there are lessons she can learn from the past.

Wilson was facing tough times in 1989. The bloody crackdown on student-led protesters in Beijing, eight years before Hong Kong returned to China, had a profound impact on the city. It caused a crisis of confidence in Hong Kong and triggered a wave of emigration, with the government estimating 42,000 people would leave that year.

At that critical moment Wilson unveiled ambitious initiatives in a groundbreaking policy address intended to boost confidence in the run-up to the 1997 handover. These included the construction of a new airport at Chek Lap Kok, the expansion of higher education and the introduction of the Bill of Rights.

Carrie Lam delivers her third policy address on Wednesday. Photo: May Tse

The Post's headline on October 12, 1989, read "Bold vision for Hong Kong". Andy Ho On-tat, deputy political editor of the Post at the time, said Wilson's policy blueprint in 1989 featured daring initiatives to tackle the crisis.

"It drew applause from all quarters in Hong Kong. When people talk about policy addresses delivered by the city's leaders in the past few decades, many Hongkongers often have the 1989 policy address on their minds," Ho said.

Wilson, looking back on that policy address in 2005, stressed that a leader must "try to see beyond immediate crises and take a longer-term view". He said: "It seemed to me in 1989 that we should not be so concerned about what had happened that we stopped planning for the future."

He added: "In times of crisis, we should continue with the plan we had and we should build for the long-term future of Hong Kong."

Rather than the traditional review of all policy areas, he focused on the government's goals in selected fields under the theme "building for the future". Wilson laid out his plan for building the new airport and associated works. Known as the "Rose Garden Project", the plan was the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Hong Kong. The airport opened in 1998 and has become the lifeblood of the city's economy.

Wilson also targeted education. He pledged that the number of first-year, first-degree places in universities would more than double from 7,000 in 1990 to about 15,000 in 1995. In the 1989-90 academic year, only about 7 per cent of students aged between 17 and 20 received a university education. This rose to 18 per cent by 1995.

The new airport on Chek Lap Kok opened in 1998.

In an attempt to entrench the political and social freedoms that Hong Kong people enjoyed, the governor promised to enact the Bill of Rights Ordinance. The legislation, passed in 1991, incorporated provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a human rights treaty, into Hong Kong law.

The Bill of Rights, which survived the handover, has made it much easier for people to defend their human rights in court.

Wilson admitted the new initiatives would be expensive. "The amount of money we are proposing to spend on building for Hong Kong's future may seem daunting. But it represents a necessary investment in human resources and in our physical infrastructure. By pressing ahead with such ambitious programmes, the government is demonstrating its commitment to Hong Kong's future," he said.

Big bang needed

Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, who served as a lawmaker from 1981 to 2008, was present at Wilson's address. She praised him for delivering "big bang measures".

"Those initiatives, particularly the Rose Garden Project, demonstrated the colonial government's commitment to invest in Hong Kong's future. It did boost the confidence of Hong Kong people amid those difficult times," Chow, honorary chairwoman of the pro-business Liberal Party, said.

Hong Kong has been rocked by more than four months of anti-government protests. Photo: Sam Tsang

Analysts said the 1989 policy address may offer food for thought for Lam who is under great pressure to meet public expectations.

If the security situation allows her to make the address in Legco, she will be following a tradition which began in 1969. The legislature's rules were changed the previous year to provide for the governor to deliver a speech at the first sitting of a new Legco session, if he wished. It became an annual ritual which has continued after the handover, providing an opportunity for Hong Kong's leader to set out a range of policy initiatives.

The protests began in June, sparked by government plans to make changes to extradition laws which would have allowed suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China.

The protesters have made five demands: the withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into use of force by police during the demonstrations, an amnesty for those arrested, a halt to describing the protests as riots, and the implementation of universal suffrage.

Lam suspended the unpopular bill but it was three months before she announced it would be formally withdrawn. She has rejected the call for an independent inquiry which, according to several opinion polls, is backed by the majority of Hong Kong people.

But rather than respond to the demands, sources said housing and social welfare initiatives were likely to be the key planks of Lam's address, including a fresh push for a starter-home scheme she launched two years ago and a limited resumption of the Tenants Purchase Scheme to help public housing tenants own their homes.

Forget the nitty-gritty

Andy Ho, who served as former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's information coordinator from 2006 to 2012, said the speech should depart from the usual practice of listing piecemeal initiatives.

"Hong Kong is at the crossroads now. Carrie Lam should use her policy speech to demonstrate the government's commitment to the city's future and the direction of its governance," he said. "She should throw away the nitty-gritty of previous policy speeches. Instead, she should address the key issues of public concern, such as political reform and governance. She should come up with big bang measures and mind bombs to impress the public."

Ho noted that Lam did not have a free hand to relaunch electoral reform, which would be subject to approval from Beijing. But he said she could still be courageous and make the system more democratic, while working within the constitutional constraints.

"For instance, the government could switch corporate votes in functional constituencies to individual votes. It could be done by making changes to local legislation, without having to amend the Basic Law or the decision of the National People's Congress Standing Committee" said Ho, currently a public affairs consultant.

Of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council, 30 are for functional constituencies. Photo: Nora Tam

He was referring to Hong Kong's 28 trade and professional-based functional constituencies, which return 30 of the 70 lawmakers and are elected by only 230,000 of the city's more than three million voters. Ten of these functional constituencies, such as those for banking, only have corporate voters - companies and organisations - rather than individuals, which critics say make them open to abuse.

Stephen Chiu Wing-kai, chair professor of sociology at the Education University of Hong Kong, said Lam should make bold moves to address deep-rooted problems in the city even if she cannot resolve the political issues.

"She should consider increasing the number of government-funded first-year undergraduate places from the existing 15,000 a year or waiving part of tuition fees for university students," he said. "The moves could ease the pressure of young people in competing for university places and relieve their economic burden."

Political solution for a political crisis

Selina Chow said she was worried Lam would resort to handing out public money on livelihood matters while skirting political issues. "We are facing a political problem and need a political solution, such as launching an independent inquiry into police use of force" she said. "Carrie Lam can't set aside the current political crisis and drill on livelihood issues."

Selina Chow is worried Carrie Lam will resort to handing out public money on livelihood matters. Photo: May Tse

Chow said even if Lam intended to tackle land and housing issues, she should draw reference from the 10-year housing programme unveiled by then governor Murray MacLehose in his inaugural policy address in 1972. MacLehose set the ambitious target of housing 1.8 million people in a decade.

"You need big bang measures and clear vision in times of crises. Piecemeal measures on this and that policy area will get you nowhere," Chow said.

Ray Yep Kin-man, a professor in City University's department of public policy, said Lam's predecessors as chief executive failed to make the most of their policy addresses to deliver bold measures at times of crisis.

You need big bang measures and clear vision in times of crises. Piecemeal measures on this and that policy area will get you nowhereSelina Chow, former lawmaker

In 2003, then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa suffered double blows to his leadership. One was from the fallout of the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, which killed 299 people, and the second was the public backlash to his attempt to enact new national security laws. He shelved the bill after an estimated half a million people marched in protest.

Tung admitted weaknesses in his administration when he delivered his 2004 policy speech and made a more candid admission in his final policy address in January 2005.

"In formulating policies, we fell short of 'thinking what people think' and 'addressing people's pressing needs'. We introduced too many reform measures too hastily, putting heavy burdens on our people," he said. "We also lacked a sense of crisis, political sensitivity as well as the necessary experience and capability to cope with political and economic changes."

Tung Chee-hwa, pictured with Carrie Lam, failed to recover from his governance crisis. Photo: Sam Tsang

But Tung did not introduce bold policy initiatives in his last two policy blueprints and failed to recover from his governance crisis. He resigned two months after announcing his last policy speech, citing health reasons.

Yep said Carrie Lam should unveil new public engagement methods in her policy address to better gauge public opinion, such as opening half of the city's 490 advisory and statutory bodies to the Member Self-recommendation Scheme for Youth. More than a dozen bodies, such as the Youth Development Commission and the Committee on the Promotion of Civic Education, are now covered by the scheme which was introduced in 2017.

"But I have reasonable grounds to worry that Lam is assuming the situation is returning to normal and is focusing on livelihood issues. Her lack of a sense of crisis will make the matter even worse," Yep said.

During the Great Depression, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt said in one of his famed fireside chats in 1935: "When you get at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on"

All of Hong Kong will be watching on Wednesday what knot Carrie Lam is going to tie against all odds to lift the city - and herself - from the abyss.

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