What we have here is a failure to communicate: Tung Chee-hwa's consultation overdrive

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Hong Kong's first post-colonial leader issued an avalanche of public consultation documents during his ill-fated seven years in power. Yet his administration was still accused of being out of touch with ordinary people.  Are we seeing history repeat itself?

The resignation of Hong Kong's first post-colonial Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was marked in the March 2005 issue of AmChamHK magazine marked with a review of his administration's extensive public consultation exercises.

"One of the most persistent mysteries of the Tung administration is exactly how it is that a government which produces so many reams of 'Public Consultation' documents each year can be perceived as being so out of touch with public opinion," editor Fred Armentrout wrote.

The sheer volume of output – 185 formal public consultation exercises between 1997 and 2005 – combined with poor presentation and communication were likely a major part of the problem, he said. But so too was how late in the policy-setting process the public engagement began. 

Tung stepped down midway through his second term following mass public demonstrations over plans to introduce Article 23 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that Hong Kong's government "shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies." 

About half a million people marched through Hong Kong on July 1, 2003, with many demanding Tung resign. While it would take almost two more years for him to do so, the Article 23 debacle is generally seen as the first in a chain of banana skins that undercut Tung's administration.

"Many people were critical of how the Article 23 bill was drafted back in 2003, about how it was done as an ‘in house job,’ without any consultation, and then when they did consult, it was just for cosmetic changes, not for any major changes, because their minds had already been set," Professor Simon Young, Hong Kong University Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Law, said in a recent telephone interview.

There was no independent expertise or thorough research done before the initial proposals were arrived at, said Young, also a barrister specializing in – among other fields – human rights, constitutional law and aspects of criminal law reform. History repeats itself here. "The rush to try to pass the law has released some belief of urgency, when it’s not really urgent. Or if there is urgency, there’s some other way to deal with the matter,” he said.

Former Solicitor General Daniel R Fung said the extradition bill needed "deep thought and full consultation." 

"Extradition is an issue which is both legal as well as diplomatic. And normally, how these things are done is that you negotiate extradition treaties. If you succeed in having a treaty, you then draft domestic law. So it’s a serious process and I do think it requires time. Hong Kong people actually deserve that deep thought and consideration.”