Hong Kong is at a crossroads. It can embrace bigger government and provide more services to its citizens, but at the cost of substantially higher taxes. Or it can return to its small-government roots. It's a choice that should be thrashed out by the people of Hong Kong.
But that's not going to happen in the general election that's coming up in late March. Under Hong Kong's convoluted system, just 800 people elect the chief executive, and only a tiny minority of Hong Kong voters have the right to choose these electors. Beijing-backed Tung Chee-hwa won public nominations from more than 700 of the electors, thus precluding other candidates from even putting their names on the ballot to run against him.
If the past five years are any indication, Hong Kongers can expect more top-down decision-making in a second Tung term. Fewer than half of the Legislative Council's members are directly elected. The Legislative Council may bark a lot, but it has no bite, because its members are not allowed to introduce spending bills. Meanwhile, the perennial vote winner, the Democratic Party, doesn't have a seat on Tung's powerful Executive Council. The founder of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee, would have a strong shot at winning a free race for chief executive.
Hong Kong now has the worst of both authoritarian and democratic systems. The chattering classes can talk in Hong Kong, giving the former colony a shiny democratic veneer. But the farce of Tung's reelection shows that Hong Kong remains even further from a democracy than it was in its waning days as a British colony. In the runup to the end of British rule in 1997, Beijing promised that Hong Kongers would rule Hong Kong. The record of the first five years shows that a small group of people gets to do the ruling. If Hong Kong wants to move on, its politics had better move with the aspirations of its people.
Tung Chee-hwa frets about keeping Hong Kong relevant at a time when China is booming. The best way to do that is to build on Hong Kong's strengths. A strong rule of law, a free media, and the development of its embryonic democracy are good places to start. Tung's multibillion-dollar infrastructure-spending program won't buy these values. But if he were serious about them, he would help ensure Hong Kong's prosperity long after the spending boom has died away.