It is not an easy task to score a government’s overall performance over the course of an entire calendar year. The range of activities is just too wide. Moreover, in addition to the targets an administration sets for itself, events often arise which are not within its control, so governments are prone to being "blown off course" because they have to respond to issues not of their own making. With that caveat, how should we rate the government’s 2018 performance?
Perhaps if we approach the exercise from three different perspectives – policy, personalities, and overall manner and bearing – then like the three blind men feeling different parts of the elephant, while none would give us a complete picture, taken together we could still discern some valid truths about the total creature.
On the policy side, chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngoh has been very clear throughout her term to date that priority is to be accorded to livelihood issues and in particular to housing. To her credit, she has held to the course despite pressure from some nominally pro government voices to dip her toe in the treacherous waters of Article 23 security legislation.
Unfortunately, lack of new laws in this area, despite the obligation to take action specified in the Basic Law, left the administration defenceless when it came to handling the political pipsqueak Andy Chan Ho-tin and his hot button issue of "independence". That is the only explanation I can think of for the absurd overreaction in the way officials dealt with what is essentially a non-issue. But given the ongoing tussle on many fronts between China and the United States, and given the latter’s willingness to fan the independence flames in Taiwan and elsewhere to unsettle Beijing, the local administration probably felt it had no alternative but to strike a tough pose.
The negative impact of banning a prominent international journalist from Hong Kong will reverberate for many years to come in diplomatic and media circles. Our city was even deemed worthy of mention in the article nominating Time magazine’s Persons of the Year cover story on journalists persecuted for standing up for truth. There alongside the brutally murdered Jamal Khashoggi was our very own Victor Mallet. A ridiculous juxtaposition but life is not always fair. A spectacular own goal if ever there was one.
But on housing Lam was right to say more land was the only long-term solution, and new land by way of significant reclamation was an essential part of the answer. The advantage of new land is that it comes with no strings attached, no vested interests to battle. The danger for 2019 is that the administration might be tempted to meander down the same populist path as the Task Force on Land Supply, and recommend scrapping a priceless community asset like Fanling golf course for the sake of a short-term boost in popularity. Such a Faustian bargain would cost so much in the end it would surely return to haunt us. Populism’s appetite can never be sated.
The three officials immediately below chief executive level have had a mixed year. Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has been a steady if unexciting pair of hands. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po ditto, and gets a plus rating for steering his budget through smoothly. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah got off to an unfortunate start with controversy about unauthorised building works to her own home. To her now falls the unenviable task of explaining why former chief executive Leung Chun-ying cannot be prosecuted under the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance for the $50 million he received from an Australian company, UGL, in connection with the purchase by that company of DTZ, a property firm where Leung was a director.
The simple truth is Leung cannot be prosecuted in his capacity as chief executive because at the time agreement was reached he was not in post, in fact barely a candidate, and the money was not paid to him to do anything (or refrain from doing anything) in his future capacity. Nor can he be prosecuted as an agent of DTZ because his principal consented in writing to his negotiating the non-compete arrangement directly with UGL.
I am afraid Cheng is just going to have to live with the fact that some people hate Leung, and want him prosecuted for something – anything – irrespective of the facts and the law. She will just have to tough it out. Perhaps updating the protocol on when to seek outside legal advice would help a little.
For the remaining ministers, it’s very much a mixed bag. Some like Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee continue being quietly competent, mini crises like the world’s first case of hepatitis E caught from a rat, and the flu vaccine that had to be withdrawn, both sparked only briefly then were done. At the other end of the spectrum is Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan, who still seems completely at sea (sub-standard MTR construction work? He didn’t see the letter). If only Santa had brought him a transport policy…
Finally there is the matter of impression, what is the administration’s overall image. Here I think arch civil servant from Yes Minister Sir Humphrey Appleby can help us. He told minister Jim Hacker that the purpose of government was stability, keeping things going, preventing anarchy, stopping society falling to bits. "Still being here tomorrow".
Say what you like about Lam or any of the individual ministers, they won’t get everything right but we can all rest assured the administration will still be here tomorrow. And with that confident thought, could I wish everyone a very Happy New Year.