Lo Shiu-hing, Governing Hong Kong: Legitimacy, Communication and Political Decay

Since the mid-1990s, no- one has written about Hong Kong politics
more prolifically or knowledgeably than Lo Shiu-hing. In this, his third book
on the subject in the past six years (not to mention a fourth book on the politics
of Macau), Professor Lo examines the record of Hong Kong’s post-retrocession
political development. The story he tells is a sobering one. Although he finds
that China has by -and- large formally honoured its promise to respect the “one
country two systems” formula embedded in the 1990 Basic Law, Lo nonetheless
sees Hong Kong’s principal political trend since 1997 as one of steady “institutional
decay,”, accompanied by creeping domination by Peking’s appointed Hong
Kong proxies. As Lo puts it boldly in his introduction, “Objectively speaking,
the HKSAR’s polity, economy and legal system have… deteriorated since the
handover. Politically, the HKSAR is becoming more similar to the PRC than ever
before” (p. 3).

Professor Lo’s catalogue of Hong Kong’s deteriorating
conditions is a long and inclusive one: “Specifically, political decay in
the HKSAR is characterized by a more personal style of governance; a chaotic implementation
of public policies; an increasingly politicized judiciary […]; endangered
civil liberties […]; an amalgamation of political labelling and mobilization;
a failure of political institutions to absorb public pressure and demands; and
a governmental insensitivity to public opinion” (p. 13). Now this is a rather
imposing list of regime shortcomings. And it is clear from the outset that Professor
Lo is not interested in sugar-coatingsugarcoating his critical observations. In
seven well-defined thematic chapters, he examines successively the British legacy,
the socio-economic environment, the civil service, the Chief Executive, the legislature,
public opinion, and the role of BeijingPeking. Buttressing his arguments with
a profusion of contemporaneous newspaper accounts and anecdotal evidence, as well
as the observations of numerous Hong Kong-based analysts, he builds a strong case
for Hong Kong’s steady institutional deterioration and decay since 1997.
There are two main problems with his analysis—neither of which necessarily
bear on Lo’s conclusions, which seem to me more or less sound, if perhaps
too caustic and one-sided. The first problem is methodological,; the second stylistic.
Methodologically, Lo has perhaps unwittingly committed one of the cardinal sins
of social science: selection bias. That is, he appears to have carefully chosen
his evidence, his anecdotes, and his quotations to make the Hong Kong government
of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa look as incompetent as possible –—
thereby bolstering his own pre-formed conclusions. Now it may be objected that
it would be difficult to make the government of C.H. Tung look good no matter
where you looked for evidence; but since Lo has looked mainly for bad news—finding
a good deal of it—we will’ll never know. Insofar as the book purports
to be an objective account of Hong Kong’s government and politics, its lack
of balance is something of a liability.

Stylistically, the book suffers from a good deal of redundancy
and some sloppy editing. The same arguments appear over and over, in slightly
altered form, frequently accompanied by lengthy quotations from secondary sources.
Much of this scholastic supporting material could have been excised (or abbreviated)
with little or no loss of effect. It is as though Professor Lo felt duty bound
to include every shred of evidence, every relevant quotation in his possession.
His editor should have exercised a firmer hand.

Nevertheless, and despite these shortcomings, Governing
Hong Kong
is a useful book. Its slashing critique of the Tung administration’s
performance may be one-sided and overblown, but in view of the administration’s
inept handling of the recent SARS epidemic (among other failings), it may well
be appropriate to point out that the HKSAR emperor’s clothes are, well, very
thin indeed.

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