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Friday, May 13, 2022, 00:29
Crisis management: Top priority for new CE’s first 100 days in office
By Tony Kwok
Friday, May 13, 2022, 00:29 By Tony Kwok

With the successful conclusion of the chief executive election on May 8, and having been awarded a record 1,416 votes from the Election Committee, or 99.2 percent of all votes, it signals universal support for the CE-elect, John Lee Ka-chiu. 

The new leader should move swiftly to assemble a team that prioritizes results, which is expected to be the hallmark of his distinctive style, in tackling a slew of deep-seated problems affecting people’s livelihoods, our economic development, education reform, worsening wealth gap, and much else.

In its rush to achieve results in his administration’s first 100 days, Lee’s team should take on board the lessons learned from his predecessors’ failures. With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s easy to identify that by far their biggest oversight was failing to put in place robust contingency plans to cope with all manners of crises. For there is no denying that the world has undergone an unprecedented speed of change over the last two decades, be it in the sphere of geopolitics, climate change, biodiversity and sci-tech advancements or much else. The simple truth is that the exponential speed of change has left not only many individuals by the wayside, but even governments were unable to keep up. It’s no wonder that many governments were caught off guard when crises erupted without warning that threaten entire people’s survival — be it through pandemic, war, man-made famine, or malicious political machinations.

To ensure that his administration is not dogged by the same paralyzing unforeseen political opposition and various crises, Lee and his top team must institutionalize various contingency plans that bring into play the full resources of government, especially the civil servants themselves

Closer to home, we can recall that when Tung Chee-hwa was appointed as our first CE on July 1, 1997, he received huge public support. He laid out a visionary and well-thought-out plan to tackle the housing and economic development issues, such as the pledge to provide 85,000 housing units per year. But within months, Hong Kong was stricken with the unprecedented Asian financial crisis, and the special administrative region government was caught totally unprepared. As a result, Tung’s popularity plummeted, and the people’s disgruntlement was exploited by a media-savvy populist political opposition, which eventually led to his resignation. The bitter lesson for his successors should be: It’s not enough to have a good strategic plan. It’s equally important to provide robust contingencies against the opposition and all foreseeable crises. If all that had been in place during the Tung administration and his excellent strategic plan was implemented without obstruction, we probably would be enjoying a much more prosperous economy with a much higher level of popular satisfaction across society at large today.

To ensure that his administration is not dogged by the same paralyzing unforeseen political opposition and various crises, Lee and his top team must institutionalize various contingency plans that bring into play the full resources of government, especially the civil servants themselves.

Although the fifth wave of COVID-19 is likely to have subsided by the time the new government takes office on July 1, there is no room for complacency. The first likely crisis for the new government could be the inevitable sixth wave of COVID-19, which many medical experts have warned will hit Hong Kong at some point before long. We should learn from the sad lesson of how the SAR government failed to tackle the fifth wave in a timely fashion, which led to the infection of millions of residents and the death of nearly 10,000 people. The key problem was the inability of the government to mobilize enough manpower expeditiously to suppress the initial onslaught of the mutated virus. Many residents complained that they were unable to get the help they needed from the government; calls to hotlines went unanswered; and ambulances took hours to arrive. Many infected victims were stuck at congested homes for days without knowing what to do, meanwhile spreading the infection. All these could have been avoided if there had been an effective human resources mobilization contingency plan in place. It is absurd to see that while the civil service has over 180,000 employees, many were instructed to stay at home, while the government instead resorted to employing temporary staff from outside or retired officers to cope with the emergency. All this is largely due to the government’s lack of foresight and contingency planning and failure to mobilize its own staff to respond quickly to crisis. The incoming CE was right in including in his manifesto the establishment of a standing “mobilization protocol” for government departments to handle all manners of emergencies. It would require government departments to deploy staff to an emergency response unit in the event of a crisis. This should be fully implemented in the first 100 days of the new administration to deal with the expected sixth wave and other possible crises.

On this, the SAR government can take reference from the establishment of the Essential Service Corps (ESC) under the British colonial rule. The main objective of the ESC was to facilitate speedy mobilization of civil servants to help deal with emergencies. I recalled that I was recruited into the ESC in my then-capacity as customs inspector. I was given an ESC identity card with details of the command structure and whom to report to in case of a call-out. My role at the time was to guard a rice godown! Unfortunately, the British colonial government dissolved the ESC before the reunification. The reason why such an essential and useful mechanism was dissolved is anyone’s guess!

In fact, the Essential Services Corps Ordinance is still in our law books, Cap 197. Under Section 4 of the ordinance, the chief executive may raise and maintain a body of persons to be known as the Essential Services Corps to assist in the maintenance or the performance of 24 essential services as specified in the schedule of that ordinance. Hence there should be no problem for the ESC to be reestablished with the majority of civil servants mandatorily required to join, and with a clear command and communication structure so that all essential personnel can be mobilized and deployed to where they are needed in the shortest possible time.

At the same time, local district volunteers, including healthcare workers, should be mobilized in a systematic fashion, taking into account the diverse expertise of the volunteers and the pressing needs of the unfolding crisis affecting different districts. Because of the swift-changing nature of most crises, the command structure for the volunteers must incorporate flexibility in its plan of action. With such a manpower resource under the resurrected ESC, Hong Kong should have no problem dealing with the sixth wave and other emergencies. It would undoubtedly give the Chinese mainland enough confidence to reopen the border, an achievement considered by many to be a top priority of the new administration.

The other looming crisis is the Western governments’ possible adoption of further sanctions on Hong Kong under the pretext of “promoting democracy” and “human rights”. In fact, right after the announcement of the successful CE election, the European Union issued a statement labeling the election as “yet another step in the dismantling of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the election system was revamped after the 2019 social disturbance to ensure the continuation of “one country, two systems” under the rule of patriots, thus discouraging any future Western interference and their backing of subversive activities in Hong Kong. The stability brought about by this new political structure will ensure the continuation of “one country, two systems” beyond 2047.

But as things stand, there is little doubt that some Western governments, led by Washington, will continue to sabotage Hong Kong in its attempts to contain China’s rise. Already the US has imposed sanctions on John Lee in violation of international law. In fact, it is safe to assume that we are likely to see more sanctions being imposed on Hong Kong. Furthermore, some local subversive groups supported with foreign aid are waiting in the wings, and looking for signs of weakness on the part of government before pouncing to stir up public discontent and hatred toward the new government. It would be naive and fatal to assume that after the conclusion of the 2019 riots, everything would be peaceful and that all subversive forces have been eliminated.

Apart from ensuring our streets are safe, the government must be also vigilant for foreign attacks against our financial and economic system. It must have robust contingency plans to counter the sanctions as those imposed on Russia by Western powers. On this, the sooner we introduce the local-version National Security Law as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law, the better. This is particularly important to plug the legal loopholes in dealing with subversive organizations, through the prohibition of foreign organizations in their attempts to interfere here using their local proxies. We should not forget how Hong Kong protesters were professionally trained to be rioters to sabotage their own society by the foreign organization Oslo Freedom Forum!

Only when we are able to ensure national security will we be able to tackle head-on the many deep-rooted problems holding us back in recent years. If the new CE can introduce a new national security bill in his first 100 days, it would send a powerful signal of his determination to effect massive positive changes in Hong Kong society by first laying down a solid foundation for pursuing good governance with his results-oriented approach. The new CE deserves communitywide support in his bold ambition to create a rejuvenated metropolis that is inclusive, vibrant, equal, caring, diverse and free, built on the foundation of rule of law.

The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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