We in Hong Kong are witnessing a rare experiment in which our government is attempting to govern without legitimacy. This is the sort of thing we see in war zones or the power vacuums associated with imminent regime change. Yet neither of these conditions apply to Hong Kong. The district council elections, a referendum on the performance of government, demonstrated the government’s legitimacy deficit.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Governing without legitimacy has serious consequences. First, it breeds disrespect for authority. For instance, community respect for authority ensures that we stop at red lights, pay our taxes on time, and obey the commands of police officers. As the police will attest, they have lost authority in Hong Kong big time.

Second, it undermines the rule of law. Citizens more willingly violate what they perceive as unjust laws. Take our anti-mask law for example. As anyone can see, it is widely violated, almost with impunity.

Third, governing without legitimacy fuels hate speech and contempt for individuals. Disrespect for authority has led to uncivil and outrageous behaviour, such as doxing police officers. People hassle our officials (Regina Ip and Theresa Cheng) on the street. The community treats government pronouncements with derision and contempt. This denies government officials the ‘right to speak’ which they need to effectively govern Hong Kong.

Fourth, governing without legitimacy undermines accountability, both within government and between government and society. We need accountability for efficient and effective governance. Civil servants critical of government have already demonstrated publicly against the government and signed petitions denouncing government action. Beyond government, the failure of the community to hold government to account, a basic cause of our current discontent, is a violation of the Basic Law.

basic law constitution handover
Photo: GovHK.

The Hong Kong government’s declining legitimacy is undermining community support for its own supporters, evidenced in the recent district council poll. Instead, we have the pitiful sight of the DAB leader savagely attacking the government’s performance in Legco, before marshalling her troops to retain the CE in office. No one, it would seem, not Beijing, not the DAB, nor the government itself can apparently save Hong Kong.

Beijing has dithered on critical decisions on Hong Kong’s leadership in a misguided concern for optics (‘We don’t give in to the mob’). While the CCP dithers, the party is itself undermining aspects of its newly announced ‘tough’ policy on Hong Kong.

"december 9" aerial civil front
Photo: Tam Ming Keung/USP.

One of the core planks of the policy is to gain tighter control of the civil service. To understand the views and behaviour of government employees, their bosses need their trust and respect. Bureaucratic relationships built on fear (e.g., tight surveillance) lead to subordinates concealing their true intentions.

Beijing has just announced that it seeks to identify and discipline those Hong Kong civil servants the party perceives as disloyal. Our civil servants are recruited from a society that largely holds the government in contempt. Civil servants see this, understand this, and many obviously sympathize with this view. How will the party identify disloyal civil servants without the willing cooperation of government employees themselves? Rebuilding legitimate and respected government is a prerequisite for such a policy to be effective.

We have worked hard for institutions that are trusted, legitimate, and respected. They are easily squandered and take years to build. Every additional day that Beijing maintains our government in power is an opportunity lost to begin to rebuild. Beijing and the Hong Kong government are, thus, robbing us of a future of effective governance.

So, message to Beijing: remove immediately from government those most closely responsible for the current debacle. Only then can Hong Kong begin the process of rebuilding trust and legitimacy in our institutions that effective governance requires.

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.