Author: Vera Yuen, HKU
A month ahead of the 2022 Hong Kong Chief Executive election, former chief secretary John Lee declared he was running for office. The city was already expecting Lee to take power in the near future, with the public giving little attention to incumbent Carrie Lam.
Lee was the only candidate in the election and won with over 99 per cent of the vote, which was cast by a largely pro-Beijing Election Committee.
The election is part of a fundamental paradigm shift that has pulled Hong Kong’s institutions closer to their mainland counterparts. The 2020 National Security Law (NSL) has been used by the government, along with colonial-era ordinances, to crack down on political freedom. Many opposition parties, civil society organisations, unions and media outlets have been dissolved and their leaders imprisoned or forced into exile.
As a result of the ‘Improving Electoral System (Consolidated Amendments) Bill 2021’, the Election Committee of the Chief Executive was reformed, with more seats going to ex-officio members and hardly any members of the opposition permitted to become part of the Election Committee. The Election Committee must now be vetted by the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee, which would exclude anyone not trusted by Beijing.
Some interpreted Lee’s election as a sign of an incoming repressive regime because he was previously part of the police force and lacked policymaking 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 policy implementation, making whoever filled the position less important.
To understand Hong Kong’s governance going forward, understanding the relationship between the central government and local governments in mainland China is essential. China is characterised by a public administration system in which the central government sets out the goals for local governments. These objectives include economic policy, social development and party-building. Performance targets for a local government could be as precise as rearing 256,000 pigs, establishing three new enterprises through funding from foreign investors or cultivating 1050 hectares of a banana plantation. This system comes with frequent performance evaluations and a steep incentive structure.
Lee has pledged to ‘perform’ by setting key performance indicators (KPIs) for the future government. KPIs have been widely used to evaluate corporate staff and officials in mainland China.
Hong Kong’s bureaucratic institutions are also likely to change. When asked about the difference from his predecessors in terms of housing policy, Lee called for better governing capability and quicker delivery. This is crucial to ensure Hong Kong catches up with the mainland — housing construction requires 5–7 years in Hong Kong as a result of the bureaucratic processes required, but it takes a shorter time in mainland China’s cities.
Lee also proposed to set up ‘District Services and Community Care Teams’ in all districts of Hong Kong. This proposal came under the governance policy section of Lee’s manifesto and aims to fulfil the goal of ‘social stability’. In China and Singapore, many of these district and neighbourhood teams have been state-organised — micro-managing and disciplining citizens, collecting feedback on governance and promoting nationalism.
The dismantling of civil society organisations and local groups after the enactment of the NSL created a vacuum in civil society that must be filled. It is expected that state-administered neighbourhood and social groups will take up this task. In the mainland, the government has employed digital technologies — including artificial intelligence, big data and facial recognition — to monitor citizens’ behaviour both online and offline. Digital social governance also became widespread in order to enforce China’s zero-COVID policy.
Beijing hopes that tighter control and closer monitoring via ‘smart governance’ and community care teams will improve stability, enhance government effectiveness and win back the confidence of citizens and foreign investors.
Though it remains unclear who will set Lee’s KPIs, it is believed that officials in Beijing will have a say and citizens in Hong Kong will not. This is only desirable if Beijing’s objectives are aligned with the interests of Hong Kong’s citizens. But it is unclear whether mainland officials appreciate the unique nature of Hong Kong’s society under the ‘one country, two systems’ model. The clash of perspective and ideology between Hong Kong and the mainland —as demonstrated by the social unrest in 2019 — also constitutes another issue.
It is doubtful that the reform of bureaucratic institutions in Hong Kong will occur smoothly. Reforming the civil service without creating a major disruption will be an uphill battle, especially for the relatively inexperienced Lee.
A tighter grasp on Hong Kong’s government and people is expected as a result of Lee’s election. Officials in Hong Kong will aim to deliver goals set by Beijing. Attempts to introduce reforms could become more radical if officials become subject to Beijing’s top-down personnel accountability system. As Hong Kong’s society becomes less liberal, the ruler will have a harder time collecting genuine feedback.
Vera Yuen is Lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong.
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