A Tribute to Politics
(Letter to Hong Kong - 2004.5.9)
Many well-meaning friends have written to me recently after my announcement to step down from the Legislative Council at the end of the term. They expressed shock and surprise at my unexpected decision and had invariably demanded a good explanation. A few have even begun to indulge in rather wild speculations that had to be dispelled, such as, I am disillusioned with politics or that I am afraid to lose in an election. The real reason is simple but the background can be complicated. I am glad to try putting my thoughts to paper now that the dust has settled a little.
As a professional, I entered politics with a dream to make a difference. When I find myself being forced to ‘drift’ in politics and am unable to provide effective solutions, perhaps it is time to let other younger hopefuls make the attempt. It was also my intent to serve and contribute towards a smooth and stable transition in the historical transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong. I believe that I have stayed long enough to achieve this objective, now that full integration with China is well on its way. Having tasted politics in good measure, I am also convinced that I am not suited to a long-term political career in the Hong Kong environment.
I am proud to have served in Hong Kong’s political arena though, and greatly appreciate that there are many dedicated individuals with a great deal of talent whose contributions are often under-rated by our numerous severe critics. I also strongly believe that politics is an essential and important process that should lead towards better social contracts. Instead of creating endless obstacles for these people, as a community, we could instead try to be supportive in providing a constitution that is more conducive to rewarding good political conduct and behaviour. To deny Hong Kong such an environment, risks stifling the enthusiasm of the next generation of good people.
By the same token, I strongly disagree with the comment that Hong Kong lacks the political talent for self-rule. I have had the privilege of working with many of these people both inside and outside the administration in the last twenty odd years. However, the sad reality is that more and more of these good people are choosing to leave earlier than they should. I believe that rather like nature, it is hard to expect that exotic flowers will flourish in a hostile desert. Without proper moisture and the right soil only thorny cactus with the strongest survival instincts will grow in abundance! In reality, what we get is what we deserve, Hong Kong desperately needs to cultivate and even scout for young talent especially from the moderate middle class.
As Hong Kong’s politics take on a life of its own with limited environmental support, it has turned increasingly competitive and favors greater coalition and professionalism. However, the many political parties and groups formed still lack the research capabilities and vision to provide a consistent and orderly community agenda and thereby carry public opinion with it. Instead, it is the sporadic and sensational media reports that lead the way. In the circumstances, I find that before the politicians and the community has a proper chance to debate an issue, often the verdicts have already been handed down. Everyone is then forced to hastily take sides or face being accused of sitting on the fence. In defense of their collective public image, political groups are often quick to react. But once forced into a quick decision, they are entrenched and become inflexible. In order to stand out from the rest of the crowd and attract public attention, some might even choose to take a more extreme view and deploy sharp media tactics together with their number advantage to drown the opinions of others. That is why the political arena is getting increasingly polarised, to the point that it has become almost impossible for the more balanced points of view to see the light of day.
The voting pattern of the Legislative Council has changed too in recent years. We used to care a lot about winning a majority in a vote. Not anymore. The topics under discussion have become repetitive and political parties are more concerned with making a point to their own selected groups of loyal supporters rather than obtaining well balanced practical results for the whole community.
This brand of instant satisfaction in politics could deteriorate, if they stand uncorrected, into constant superficial confrontation for the sake of confrontation. When that happens, the role of the moderate middle can be very limited since their votes are no longer in demand except as bargaining chips with the Government. Fortunately, on the majority of occasions, we still have good cooperation in the Legislative Council. However, my conviction as a moderate to help build consensus and to provide alternative solutions has become ineffective in controversial issues like the legislation to reduce civil servants pay, Article 23 and political reform. At the end of the day, after our more moderate views are brushed aside, the independents are forced to take sides or offer no views at all, which is even worse. The matter does not rest there. We still need to carefully explain our choice to a sometimes suspicious constituency who might not fully appreciate that we are forced to take an uncomfortable position between the lesser of two evils. That is not what I had in mind when I entered politics.
Another trend , which offers no cause for optimism, is the escalating confrontation between our democrats and the Central Government. Confrontational politics might work well in some places such as the United Kingdom where there is a real prospect of a transfer of power with minimum disruption or change to the livelihood of ordinary people. Such conditions do not exist in Hong Kong. It must be obvious that a change in power in Hong Kong is unlikely to arise as a result of confrontational politics leveled against the local administration. When the same illsuited tactic is deployed against the Central Government, what possible purpose could it serve for the people of Hong Kong? In reality, it might just help to maintain the popularity of the democrats in the short term. However, it is also tantamount to issuing an open invitation on behalf of the people of Hong Kong to a more direct and vigorous intervention by its Central Government, which has so far been happy to leave things to the local administration with little worry of losing control. The charged atmosphere will again deter the politically shy moderates who have an economic stake and therefore strong commitment to Hong Kong to take part in self-rule.
A top Chinese leader once said that Hong Kong is a difficult book to read. I agree with him. What makes Hong Kong tick and strong are not stacks of paper laws and an immortal system but the spirit of freedom and sensibleness of its people. We are gradually slipping on both counts when it comes to politics.
I would add that China is also a difficult book to read and few people in Hong Kong have studied it carefully enough. But in order for Hong Kong to succeed in future, and our politics of self-rule to flourish, we must be conversant with both books and learn to respect the differences between them. It has to be the case that slow progress can only be made for Hong Kong through patience and the building of mutual confidence and trust with our Central Government.