by Serge Berthier

The majority of the Hong Kong people are dissatisfied with the performance of the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, C.H. Tung. The shipping tycoon was unknown to the public when he was chosen, officially by a local Election Committee, unofficially by Jiang Zemin, to replace the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.

The succession was bound to be difficult. During five years, Patten, a professional politician, had done his best to stay in the limelight as the last bulwark of Hong Kong’s liberties. There was no substance in such a claim, but it did not matter. Hong Kong has always been a place where the bigger the lie, the better. Chris Patten was able in the process to manoeuvre himself from an ardent supporter of the Tories to a respected friend of Tony Blair, the Labour leader, and from an unknown defeated member of the parliament to an international figure. To follow the Houdini of politics would have been a challenge for anyone. For C.H. Tung, who is not a politician and whose social prominence came from birth, it was bound to be even more difficult.

Then, in the first year of his new job, the Asian crisis struck. It was the start of an economic storm that moved from Asia to the shores of America, and still roams the world. Companies went bankrupt, currencies collapsed and many economic clichés were destroyed.

Today, it is hard to pass a judgment on what would have been the consequences of the change of ownership of Hong Kong - all other things being equal. No one was expecting an economic crisis of the magnitude of the 1930’s crash.

That interesting question can no longer be addressed, and it deprives every analyst of an important point of reference. If the economies of Asia and the rest of the world had been performing as they were in the 1980’s and until 1996, Hong Kong would have had no objective reason to face the present unprecedented crisis engulfing the city, if, as proclaimed by the British, it was a well-managed city. But if a crisis had ensued in an idyllic economic environment, then it would have been quite legitimate to conclude that the change of sovereignty had done no good to Hong Kong.

As it is, we are left with no indication as to the validity of either claim. Hong Kong, since 1998, has to face a far from idyllic economic environment, although it could be argued that China, its main engine of economic growth, has performed at its usual best.

Yet, on closer analysis, there are strong indications that, more than the external environment, the former colonial system that was supposed to be the best protection against an unknown future, has in fact a large responsibility in the current crisis and proves to be the biggest impediment to a return to prosperity and progress.

The British were the founders of Hong Kong, an artificial city whose history is only 150 years old. Because the British had proclaimed the enemy to be China, every one was expecting a battle between countries, between political systems, between economic systems. It did not happen. China was moving so rapidly into the XXIst century, that the most practised power-diviners faltered badly. Hong Kong became a Chinese city without realizing it was one, while the Central government started to consider it pretty much the way it looks at its neighbours, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

What is happening was probably inevitable. A great shifting of power was taking place, and as Malcom Muggeridge, the British writer, said, when power shifts, men shift with it. The ensuing commotion always has a price. Hong Kong, a city of excesses, could only make it more expensive than really necessary. It is in a way its trademark.

The shift has yet to be concluded. It is a classic battle for political influence and political representation. As we shall see, it is a complex battle with many parties involved, one that requires skills, one where the only purpose is not the good of the city or the people, but power, the everlasting pursuit of man.

The perception conveyed by the local media and many observers is that C.H. Tung, at the center of it, is a political novice. The common judgment is that he is weak (Chinese like display of authoritarianism) and an ineffectual leader. Some, such as Emily Lau, say he is incompetent. Asian Affairs nº 19 looks at those claims.

That C.H. Tung is not “a great communicator”, as Christine Loh, a keen observer of the local scene says, is obvious, but in a restricted democracy, unimportant. Leaving aside the rhetoric and the hyperbole so common in Hong Kong, we found in fact that C.H Tung is following to the letter the precepts of his class, knowingly making decisions that have a political significance with a specific purpose in mind.

That the majority of the people disagree with such a purpose is now clear. But it should not surprise anyone. C.H. Tung is an archconservative and his government, using the argon of political analysis, is at the extreme right of the spectrum. If judged by classic established references, he would be among the hard-core Republicans in the United States, the staunch conservatives in the United Kingdom, the Berlusconi supporters in Italy.

Thus his government is not at best chaotic and at worse incompetent, it is just implementing policies that serve the interest of the plutocracy that is in power. Like in every plutocracy, the government represents a minority.

Any plutocracy with five years of deflation and anaemic economic growth behind it, and contemplating another five years of economic pain, would be in grave danger. Hong Kong is therefore at a turning point of its short history. But whose fault it is and what can be done to change its fate are not questions confined solely to the personality of C.H. Tung. It is a matter for the community to find solutions and to strike an acceptable balance between competing interests.

Compounding the challenge Hong Kong has to tackle is the fact that, whether it wants it or not, it is ageing, and world-cities do not grow old. They die to be reborn. Hong Kong will have to go through the process and actually is going through it, no matter what.

Thus, the American business magazine “Fortune” that already twice announced the demise of the former colony, first in 1997, announcing its imminent death, then again in 2002 when asking who needs it, is not so wrong after all.

C.H. Tung disagrees. The reader will be able to see how his ideas fit with the reality of Hong Kong and what their real meaning is.

James Tien, the leader of the Liberal party, the political wing of the elite of Hong Kong, Emily Lau, an outspoken critic of C.H. Tung, Albert Chan, a grassroot legislator, Christine Loh, the Head of Civic Exchange and a former legislator, Alan Lung, currently Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and Tsang Yok-sing, the leader of the DAB have agreed to share their views in Asian Affairs nº19 with our readers.

Serge Berthier