On December 19 Hongkongers will go to the polls to elect a new Legislative Council (LegCo). For most of us our participation is limited to choosing 20 out of the 90 LegCo members in contests curated by the Chinese Communist Party. The authorities are worried about the turnout, as they should be after Macau went through a similar exercise, registering a historic low turnout. Our government plans to extend the poll to eligible Hongkongers living on the mainland, also indicating turnout worries.

Low turnout is significant for it indicates the extent to which the public perceive that interests are at stake, that their vote matters, and that the process is legitimate. Of course, our new electoral system is legitimate in the sense that the government has the authority to introduce restrictions to the franchise. But many people in Hong Kong perceive the new system to be unfair, that is, illegitimate. According to one poll, 58 per cent of the population perceive the new-look elections to be unfair while only 21 per cent trust the Hong Kong government.

Publicity materials for the 2021 Legislative Council election nomination period outside the government headquarters in Admiralty. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Hongkongers see the new system as unfair because the government has disqualified, arrested, convicted, and jailed all well-known opposition politicians, mostly for their role in anti-government protests. It has also charged with various crimes a wide swathe of the population, seeking to hold the people of Hong Kong to account for their actions in 2019.

Yet, we live in a system where the Hong Kong government is not accountable to the people of Hong Kong. Consider the Basic Law. According to the Basic Law the Chief Executive is accountable to both the central government and to the HKSAR. The Chinese Communist Party, in its October 31, 2019 Central Committee decision, focused exclusively on our government’s accountability to Beijing. This is a kind of bureaucratic accountability. Even according to this standard, however, our government has not been held to account. No mayor of a provincial-level city on the mainland could have presided over the chaos that the local government brought to Hong Kong in 2019 without being fired.

This sort of accountability is common on the mainland. Indeed, our party secretary Zhang Xiaoming was demoted and replaced by Luo Huining, precisely for the failings of the Liaison Office in 2019. But not our Chief Executive or our Executive Council. Rather they are still here, many “standing for election” to the new Legislative Council.

The Basic Law also requires our government to be accountable to the HKSAR. This political accountability to the people of Hong Kong has also failed. Unlike previous HKSAR governments, where officials took responsibility for gross failures (eg, mismanaging SARS in 2003), our government sails on, completely oblivious to its role in the 2019 protests. And the police are promoted. So if the government wants to know why so many of the Hong Kong people are alienated and distrustful, it need look no further than this. That is, we in Hong Kong have neither the benefits of the mainland (bureaucratic accountability) nor the benefits of the HKSAR (political accountability). In Hong Kong in terms of accountability there is only downside, no upside.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang seen opening ballot boxes on September 19, 2021 when Hong Kong holds the Election Committee polls. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Pro-establishment politicians recognise that we do not have accountable government. On June 25, 2021 ExCo and LegCo member Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan, interviewed in Ming Pao, spoke about the need to restore accountability here. The government has no hope of winning over the people of Hong Kong without establishing its role and responsibility for the 2019 chaos. The chaos was clearly co-produced by an incompetent government, including the police, and the alienated people of Hong Kong. So far, authorities are only holding the people to account, in a completely one-sided affair.

The government is zealously prosecuting all protest lawbreakers. Authorities point to the law, identifying the national security law and various colonial-era laws. But the law is made by those in power and reflects their interests. The law is not coterminous with justice. Many unjust practices were once codified in law (slavery, colonialism, apartheid, etc.). It is appropriate for authorities to protect national security by law. But for authorities to beat the people with our legal system while giving themselves a free pass for their role in the 2019 chaos is utterly outrageous. Every prosecution, every conviction and every jailing of protesters reminds us that the government itself has not been brought to account.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre) and other government officials meet the press on April 13, 2021 about the electoral overhaul. Photo: GovHK.

The Basic Law by design is vague about how the people may hold the Hong Kong government to account. It allows the authorities to decide if and when they will be held to account and with what consequences. This is not a system that encourages responsible government. We have broken no law, our Chief Executive and ExCo members may say. And that may be true. But the law is designed to protect those in power, not to encourage accountable government. The law is defective. Accordingly, we in Hong Kong continue to suffer the consequences of irresponsible government.

Neither more affordable housing nor social welfare will fix this problem. The government cannot buy respect or legitimacy. Either the central government must begin holding our local government to account, or the central government must give us the tools to do it ourselves. More accountable government is more legitimate government. More legitimate government will fuel the kind of participation and support the Hong Kong authorities crave but cannot buy.


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John Burns

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.