Hong Kong considers Chinese-style governance reform
Author: Vera Yuen, HKU
A month before the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2022, former chief secretary John Lee has said he is standing for election. The city was already expecting Lee to take power in the near future, with the public paying little attention to incumbent Carrie Lam.
Lee was the lone candidate in the election and won with over 99% of the vote, which was cast by a largely pro-Beijing election committee.
The election is part of a fundamental paradigm shift that has brought Hong Kong’s institutions closer to their mainland counterparts. The National Security Act (NSL) of 2020 was used by the government, along with colonial-era ordinances, to suppress political freedom. Many opposition parties, civil society organisations, trade unions and the media have been dissolved and their leaders imprisoned or forced into exile.
As a result of the Electoral System Improvements (Consolidated Amendments) Bill 2021, the Chief Executive’s Electoral Committee has been reformed, with more seats allocated to ex-officio members and virtually no members of the opposition is allowed to be part of the election. Committee. The Election Committee must now be vetted by the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee, which would exclude anyone Beijing does not trust.
Some have interpreted Lee’s election as a sign of a repressive regime to come because he was formerly in the police force and lacked policy-making experience. Others believed that as a result of the NSL, Beijing had taken control of Hong Kong and the Chief Executive was now only responsible for implementing policy, making whoever occupied less important position.
To understand the governance of Hong Kong in the future, it is essential to understand the relationship between central government and local governments in mainland China. China is characterized by a public administration system in which the central government sets the goals of local governments. These objectives include economic policy, social development and party building. Performance targets for a local government could be as specific as raising 256,000 pigs, creating three new businesses with funding from foreign investors, or growing 1,050 hectares of a banana plantation. This system comes with frequent performance reviews and a steep incentive structure.
Lee pledged to “perform” by defining key performance indicators (KPIs) for the future government. Key performance indicators have been widely used to evaluate staff and managers of companies in Mainland China.
Hong Kong’s bureaucratic institutions are also subject to change. Asked about the difference with his predecessors in terms of housing policy, Lee called for better governance capacity and faster delivery. This is crucial to ensure Hong Kong catches up to the mainland – housing construction takes 5-7 years in Hong Kong due to the bureaucratic processes required, but it takes less time in mainland Chinese cities.
Lee also proposed setting up “district service and community care teams” in all districts in Hong Kong. This proposal fell under the governance policy section of Lee’s manifesto and seeks to achieve the goal of “social stability”. In China and Singapore, many of these district and neighborhood teams have been organized by the state – micro-managing and disciplining citizens, collecting feedback on governance and promoting nationalism.
The dismantling of civil society organizations and grassroots groups after the enactment of the NSL has created a vacuum in civil society that needs to be filled. State-administered neighborhood and social groups are expected to take on this task. On the mainland, the government has used digital technologies – including artificial intelligence, big data and facial recognition – to monitor citizens’ behavior online and offline. Digital social governance has also become widespread in order to enforce China’s zero COVID policy.
Beijing hopes that tighter control and closer monitoring through “smart governance” and community care teams will improve stability, boost government efficiency and regain the trust of citizens and foreign investors.
While it remains unclear who will set Lee’s KPIs, it is believed that Beijing officials will have a say and Hong Kong citizens will not. This is only desirable if Beijing’s goals are aligned with the interests of Hong Kong citizens. But it’s unclear whether mainland officials appreciate the unique nature of Hong Kong society under the “one country, two systems” model. Another problem is the clash of perspectives and ideologies between Hong Kong and the mainland – as evidenced by the social unrest of 2019.
It is doubtful that the reform of bureaucratic institutions in Hong Kong will go smoothly. Reforming the civil service without creating major disruption will be an uphill battle, especially for the relatively inexperienced Lee.
A better grip on the government and people of Hong Kong is expected following Lee’s election. Hong Kong officials will aim to meet the targets set by Beijing. Attempts to introduce reforms could become more sweeping if civil servants were subject to Beijing’s top-down personnel accountability system. As Hong Kong society becomes less liberal, the leader will find it harder to garner genuine feedback.
Vera Yuen is a lecturer at the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong.