(220413) -- HONG KONG, April 13, 2022 (Xinhua) -- John Lee, former chief secretary for administration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government, submits the completed nomination forms in person to the returning officer for election of the HKSAR's sixth-term chief executive, in Hong Kong, south China, April 13. 2022. (Xinhua/Lui Siu Wai)

OPINION – John Lee’s Post-Nomination Policy Directions and Reforms

Although John Lee on April 13 secured 786 nominations out of the 1,452 members of the Election Committee (EC) and is poised to become the next Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), his quest for a high degree of legitimacy has just begun, meaning that he has to design his policy platform in such a way as to win the hearts and minds of as many members of the EC as possible on May 8.

While some people focused on the so-called “lack of grassroots-level support” of Lee because two-thirds of nominations came from upper-middle classes, this observation has neglected the fact that a majority of Lee’s 17 deputy directors came from professional background rather than from the grassroots sector. As such, the “under-representation” of the Third sector (grassroots, labor and religious sector having 102 nominations) was natural as compared to 188 nominations from the First sector (commercial, business, financial and monetary sector), 186 nominations from the professional sector, 163 nominations from the Fourth sector (legislators and district organizations’ representatives), and 147 nominations from the Fifth sector (members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, National People’s Congress and other nation-wide organizations). From the perspective of political mobilization, all the other “patriots” and their related groups will be mobilized on the election day, leading to a high degree of legitimacy of the new Hong Kong Chief Executive.

If mainland elections are often characterized by the principle of “democratic centralism,” with the centralist element being the dominant component, the Hong Kong Chief Executive election is no exception to this rule. The centralist aspect is seen in the nomination of only one candidate, namely John Lee, while a few other Hong Kong people who had declared their interest in running for the election abandoned from doing so, either because they had no support or simply because they understood that the central authorities want to see this election as reflecting a united HKSAR without inter-factional rivalries.

The most important challenge for John Lee and his campaign office is to secure the highest number of votes in this one-person election. As such, the stronger his policy platform, the more likelihood he will get the higher number of votes on May 8.

Different interest and political groups contacted him and his campaign office for a variety of policy areas. For example, the rural advisory Heung Yee Kuk members expressed their concerns about the development of the Northern Metropolis. 

The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress (DAB) of Hong Kong expressed a number of demands, including (1) the recovery of ‘normal socio-economic activities and their interactions with overseas staff” in the process of containing Omicron; (2) the establishment of a development and policy reform unit to conduct research on Hong Kong’s policy issues; (3) the reappointment of an information officer to strengthen the government’s ability to communicate with the public; (4) the beginning of the legislation on Article 23 of the Basic Law; (5) the formulation of a “fake Internet information legislation;” (6) the attraction of non-local high-caliber talents to work in Hong Kong with tax exemptions; (7) the promise of ensuring 3 years for applicants for public housing units to live in their applied units while increasing the number of supply of public housing units to 30,000 per year; (8) the formulation of a fixed starting rental fee for sub-divided units within two years; (9) the review of the minimum wage by a government committee; and (1)) the promotion of the internationalization of Renminbi in the HKSAR.

Other political groups expressed their support of John Lee without elaborating on their demands, including the Business and Professional Federation (BPF) and the Liberal Party (LP). It remains to be seen how the BPF and LP will articulate a more concrete policy platform for the interest of maintaining Hong Kong’s economic prosperity and its status as a financial center.

Some representatives led by the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) were moderate in their demands, including the promotion of vocational training for the working class, the implementation of maternity leave for men whose wives would give birth to babies, an increase in unemployment benefits, and the protection of workers’ jobs.

Critically speaking, the DAB and FTU have made relatively weak demands on the improvement of the people’s livelihood. Neither the DAB nor the FTU talks about income redistribution in the form of reviewing the current tax system that remains lopsided in favor of the very rich people. FTU representatives have not suggested any concrete amount of unemployment benefits and their related mechanism. Most importantly, both DAB and FTU have not discussed a much shorter waiting time for those poor and the needy who applied for public housing units. 

The phenomenon of the Cube Hospital, where rooms are much larger and spacious than the current cage homes and sub-divided units in which the very poor people are residing, shows that the predicament of many poor people in 2022 is parallel to those people living in squatter huts in colonial Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s. During the apex of Omicron attack in March, many people living in sub-divided units were helpless and could easily get infected in crowdy environment. 

Although the Liaison Office’s director Luo Huining visited a sub-divided flat in Mongkok in September 2021, there has been no drastic change in the HKSAR government’s policy toward these sub-divided units except for the imposition of rental control. 

Ideally, John Lee’s policy platform, if it is result-oriented, would have to deal with the existence and proliferation of sub-divided units in a far more determined and effective manner.

John Lee has already mentioned a number of policy issues that he will tackle: a legislation on Article 23 of the Basic Law, and the addition of a few policy secretaries and bureaus to the existing government structures (including Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism; Secretary for Environment and Ecology; Secretary for Medical and Health Affairs; Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs, Secretary for Housing, Secretary for Innovation Technology and Industry; and Secretary for Transport and Logistics). 

(220406) — HONG KONG, April 6, 2022 (Xinhua) — John Lee, chief secretary for administration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government, attends a press conference in Hong Kong, south China, April 6, 2022. Lee tendered his resignation on Wednesday, saying he plans to run for the upcoming election of the HKSAR’s sixth-term chief executive. (Xinhua/Lui Siu Wai)

A number of civil service unions contacted John Lee and his campaign office for their views on civil service reform. Strictly speaking, civil service unions should remain politically neutral, but their expression of political support of Lee was understandable in a new era of emphasizing political correctness and patriotism. One civil service union said the policy bureaus and departments should enhance their communications. From the perspective of the public, the chaos in the government’s combat against the spread of Omicron stemmed more from the lack of leadership in the civil service at the middle and lower levels rather than the communication gap from within. The slowness of issuing death certificates to those elderly people who unfortunately died of Omicron in March fully illustrated the rigidity of some departments in dealing with crises. Civil service reforms should embrace more training on crisis management on the part of departments and instill a greater sense of prompt responses to crises. It remains to be seen how John Lee’s policy platform and direction will embrace comprehensive civil service reforms.

Other policy areas need to be tackled. The lack of any sports policy for the HKSAR has to be addressed urgently. Given the fact that 90 percent of the youth aged between 18 and 35 years old did not vote in the December 2021 Legislative Council elections, the campaign team of John Lee would have to try winning their hearts and minds by having a clear youth policy.

None of the legislators talked about the need for political reform, except for Tik Chi-yuen who mentioned the need for the government’s reinvigoration of the August 31 parameter in 2014 during which the central authorities allowed the people of Hong Kong to select their Chief Executive after an election committee screens out 2 to 3 candidates. the radical democrats labelled such a generous proposal as “pseudo-democratic.”

From a critical perspective, it is a bit too early to mention political reform if the December legislative election witnessed the withdrawal most democratically inclined groups. If the pro-democracy groups return to embrace the next legislative elections in 2026, there would be a realistic possibility of refloating the idea of August 31 parameter in 2027 and 2032.

John Lee and his assistants would be more likely focusing on district administrative reforms, where most District Councils are now not functioning after mass resignations and disqualifications of many council members. At the very least, District Councils are the only advisory bodies with directly elected components. It is hoped that, even if appointed seats may be reintroduced to District Councils, such appointed seats would be kept to a minority of council members. Otherwise, a prominent reverse democratization at the district level would likely continue to perpetuate the political apathy and disillusionment of many young people aged between 18 and 35.

In conclusion, the challenge for John Lee and his campaign office is to win the hearts and minds of more Election Committee members through a concrete policy platform. Those critics who discount the importance of this Chief Executive election have ignored the element of “democratic centralism” in Chinese-style democracy. Hong Kong is no exception to this rule. As such, John Lee and his campaign office have to make strenuous efforts at addressing a multiplicity of issues to enhance the legitimacy of the new Chief Executive. These issues embrace not only the legislation on Article 23 of the Basic Law, but also the urgent matter of speeding up the waiting time for many applicants of public housing units, accelerating the construction of public housing units annually, rehousing the poor to at least more humane housing units rather than living in sub-divided units and cage homes, and toying with the ideas of income redistribution, civil service reform, sports policy, youth policy, and district administrative reforms. If the foundation of the John Lee administration would be firmly entrenched, then the year 2027 and 2032 would have the realistic likelihood of discussing the issue of democratizing the election of the Chief Executive, especially as the HKSAR is witnessing a harmonious relationship between the executive and the more “patriotic” legislature. A strong Chief Executive with popular mandate in the future will coexist with a cooperative legislature. In the meantime, however, the people of Hong Kong have to accept the political reality of a step-by-step process of political reform, emphasizing stability and unity under the principle of “democratic centralism.”