|June 27, 2002||atimes.com|
Hong Kong embraces 'accountability system'
HONG KONG - What could be the biggest change in Hong Kong since it became a special administrative region (SAR) of China in 1997 will be the introduction of an accountability system of government from Monday, July 1.
The proposal is controversial. Skeptics do not believe it will deliver what Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa hopes it will - a more energized government. The concept is described as a hybrid of the British Westminister and the US presidential systems. Shiu Sin-por, one of Hong Kong's most astute political observers, runs the One-Country-Two-Systems Institute. He says, "The new accountability system is actually a small move to rationalize the present system, where top policy-making officials take a lot of political decisions for the community, while retaining their civil-service status."
The system is intended to make the top layer of officials accountable for their decisions, and answerable to the chief executive. It will end the dual identity of Hong Kong's key public servants as both bureaucrats and politicians.
Shiu says that they will no longer have to make political decisions while trying to maintain neutrality. As in the US political system, Tung's appointees will serve as "secretaries" of key portfolios and will be accountable for their decisions.
But the Hong Kong model differs from the US system because the appointed minister will not replace the top two or three layers of the bureaucracy with his or her own appointees. Instead, as under the British system, the existing department heads will assume the role of permanent secretaries under the appointed ministers.
Shiu sees this change as necessary to enable Hong Kong to move toward democratization and elected government. (The chief executive is now appointed by Beijing and he, in turn, appoints those endorsed by Beijing as heads of key portfolios in his administration.) Shiu says that the new system will encourage outsiders to join the government and, it is hoped, make it possible to interchange talent between the public and private sectors. If this happens, he says, it will break the tightly controlled, very immobile system of the Hong Kong civil service.
Traditionally, the only top position in Hong Kong where an official was appointed from outside the ranks of the civil service was that of the financial secretary. The current financial secretary, Antony Leung, Chief Secretary Donald Tsang and Justice Secretary Elsie Leung will retain their current posts, but they will be liberated from the civil service and allowed to undertake their political tasks free of civil service restraints.
Shiu says a lot of faces in the new lineup will be similar to those in the present ranks. He hopes that, as a result of the change, the chief executive will have a stronger and more flexible team of people who can exercise responsibility better than today.
Shiu also expects Tung's performance in his second term as chief executive to be "better than the first". He accepts that there has been "some degree of frustration" with Tung's first administration. To some degree, he says, this has occurred because it has been difficult in the first five years to move the bureaucracy to reflect the political change in Hong Kong. If Hong Kong has a stronger political leadership, he says, it will work better and the bureaucracy will be better placed to answer the needs of the society.
Other than this sense of frustration with the SAR's first administration, Shiu says that the community is deeply divided over how to develop its relationship with the mainland - a division, he adds, that, even before 1997, was developing quickly. Since the handover in that year of Hong Kong from British to Chinese jurisdiction, a deep conflict has split Hong Kong's inhabitants on how to deal with China. Shiu says this division exists both within the government and the wider community.
As a result, contrary to the expectations of many, Shiu says that relations with the mainland did not move forward in the first four years. With the retirement of the former chief secretary, Anson Chan, he expects Hong Kong now to forge closer links with the mainland.
A key project on the table today is a closer economic partnership with China, and this is being driven by Antony Leung. Shiu says Chan's successor, Donald Tsang, has taken a different approach from hers in that he recognizes the importance of developing a closer relationship with the mainland. And that closer relationship with Beijing "will not hurt the 'one country, two systems'," nor will it turn Hong Kong into "a Chinese city".
Shiu said that sections of the population remained concerned that Hong Kong is getting "too close" to the mainland and that this will compromise its social and economic systems. They argue that this is not the right way to implement the "one country, two systems" concept. Business, however, recognizes the importance of developing a strong relationship with the mainland, Shiu says. "We are getting over the division," he adds.
But he understands the genuine concern of Hong Kong people that if Hong Kong gets too close to the mainland, it will lose its identity and become just another Chinese city. His response, "We are different, and we have extensive connections with the world."
(Asia Pulse/Asia Today)
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