- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

HONG KONG Tung Chee-hwa, handpicked by China five years ago to rule this former British colony, will begin his second term as chief executive July 1 by introducing a ministerial system of government that critics fear will increase Chinese influence.
The former shipping tycoon, whose popularity has plummeted along with the economy, will place 14 political appointees in charge of the 184,000-member Civil Service, a vestige of British colonial rule. It will be the most radical change in governance since the territory reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Debate on instituting what Mr. Tung calls an "accountability system" began yesterday in the territory's 60-member Legislature Council, or Legco, which is dominated by non-elected members largely beholden to Beijing. The plan is expected to be approved today or tomorrow.
Mr. Tung insists the change will revitalize the bureaucracy by putting political appointees at the head of major agencies that handle everything from health services and housing to law enforcement and finance. The new ministers will report directly to Mr. Tung and can be fired by him, but the civil servants who occupy the top slots generally are untouchable.
Critics say the new system will concentrate too much power in the hands of Mr. Tung, who was chosen by an 800-member council made up of business leaders and Beijing supporters.
"Mr. Tung is a just puppet of Beijing, and now he'll have 14 little puppets of his own," Martin Lee, an elected Legco member and leader of the Democratic Party, said in an interview. "The new system means less accountability and more control for Beijing. To be accountable, a leader needs to be popularly elected by the people."
The politically neutral Civil Service long has been considered one of Hong Kong's competitive strengths in a region where corruption and inefficiency are common. But it is a cumbersome system, operated by 13 different policy bureaus, only three of which now report to the chief executive.
"Mr. Tung won't be doing anything different than a U.S. president who chooses like-minded individuals to serve in his Cabinet and entrusts them to implement policy," Stephen Lam, a senior Tung aide, told The Washington Times.
Pressure for better performance by the government of Hong Kong, which is officially a "special administrative region" of China, is being fueled by pocketbook issues. The local economy, which never fully recovered from the 1997 Asian economic crisis, has been battered by the recent downturn in the U.S. economy.
The economy grew by just 0.1 percent last year and is expected to expand by just 1 percent this year. Local property prices, long among the highest in the world, have tumbled some 60 percent in the past five years.
Unemployment hit a record-high 7.1 percent in April, a shock to a community long accustomed to labor shortages.
Mr. Tung believes a more responsive Civil Service can help him respond more quickly and creatively to the economic woes. Insiders say the chief executive complains that the bureaucracy is dragging its feet, acting like a British "fifth column" exerting influence long after the Union Jack was lowered July 1, 1997.
"There are increasing calls for senior civil servants to be held accountable for policy failures, including calls for some of them to step down," Mr. Tung said when announcing his plan earlier this year.
Under the terms of the agreement returning Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, the territory is to be administered for 50 years under a "one country, two systems" formula intended to allow Hong Kong to maintain its adherence to the rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and other cornerstones of democracy absent on the mainland.
Democratic elections for chief executive and the full Legco could begin as early as 2007 under the Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution. Mr. Tung, most observers agree, seems in no hurry to speed up that transition.
"Universal suffrage is the ultimate aim," said Mr. Lam, the senior Tung aide. "But we need to allow the entire system to evolve, and the new accountability system is a step in that direction."
Many of the fears expressed before 1997 about the "death of Hong Kong" under Chinese rule have not materialized. The press is free, though many publications self-censor their news pages to avoid stoking the ire of Mr. Tung and leaders in Beijing. Certain topics, such as advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet, are taboo.
The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that maintains a Hong Kong office, continues to rank the territory as the world's freest economy. Even Falun Gong, a spiritual group banned on the mainland, is free to practice in Hong Kong.
A recent government-sponsored survey found 65 percent support for Mr. Tung's plan to appoint ministers to head the Civil Service. But several academics have criticized the survey, saying the questions were shaded to encourage positive responses.
Ken Sheffer, who heads the Heritage Foundation office here, urged naysayers to give the chief executive's new system a chance to work.
"We believe Mr. Tung has the best of intentions and the interests of Hong Kong people at heart," Mr. Sheffer said. "Now it's up to him to make the system work."
Mr. Tung's new system should make the chief executive himself more accountable.
"He's often blamed the Civil Service for Hong Kong's woes," said a Western businessman who requested anonymity. "But now, if things don't go well, it'll be impossible to deflect blame. After all, it will be his own people in charge."

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