Tung can Learn from the Peanut Farmer's Mistakes

By Veron Hung

Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post, March 22, 2002

He studied engineering, saved his family business and was hardly known on the political stage before his election. His presidency was dogged by poor economic performance. Although he was considered a person of integrity, his popularity rating was low.

Sounds like Tung Chee-hwa? But Americans would blurt out this name: Jimmy Carter.

The 39th president of the United States graduated with a science degree from the US Naval Academy and served on the navy's first experimental nuclear submarine. In 1953, he resigned from the navy to save the family peanut farm.

Before campaigning for the presidency, he was a one-term governor of Georgia. The headline ''Jimmy who is running for what?'' carried by Georgia's leading newspaper the day after Mr Carter's declaration of his presidential candidacy reflected his poor national profile.

The Carter years saw declining growth of the gross national product, combined with double-digit inflation. By the end of the presidency, half of Americans were pessimistic about the future, only 21 per cent felt optimistic. In 1980, Ronald Reagan triumphed.

Like Mr Carter, Mr Tung's record is dismal. Yet Mr Tung is luckier. He has a second term. In a Beijing-controlled election that was originally scheduled for this Sunday, Mr Tung claimed an early victory. He was the only candidate, securing a total of 714 nominations from the 800-member Election Committee.

The Basic Law confers the right to elect the chief executive on this committee. The 800 members were ostensibly drawn from different social, business and professional groups.

Now, Mr Tung has a second chance. How can he assert positive influence and govern effectively during his second term? What can Mr Tung learn from Mr Carter's failures and successes?

Mr Carter made three mistakes. First, he had no clear vision about his objectives. His talk about giving America ''a government as good and as competent and as compassionate as are the American people'' was vague.

Second, he lacked political skills to garner support to realise his objectives. His aides were mostly Washington amateurs. He himself underestimated the importance of persuasion and negotiation. His poor relationship with the media limited his ability to win public support through publicity. Worst of all, he overloaded Congress with numerous proposals when he had not yet marshalled resources and developed support for winning the battles.

Third, Mr Carter failed to establish a structure of delegation to maximise his team's competence and a decision-making process that would help him receive balanced advice as well as resolve conflicts among his advisers.

He cancelled the chief of staff position, leaving himself swamped with management details. He appointed distinctly different advisers such as former secretary of state Cyrus Vance and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Mr Carter did receive balanced views. But his failure to boldly adopt a stance and resolve conflicts among his advisers undermined his administration's decision-making process.

Two decades later, a leader of a city in East Asia makes similar mistakes.

Mr Tung has never had a clear vision. Until recently, no one knew that when he ran for the first chief executive election, he had ''a vision for Hong Kong in the 21st century''. His aides explained he was looking ''at the long, long term'', but did not seem to have a better clue.

Without a clear vision to guide his work, Mr Tung initiated reforms that arguably carried worthy goals but were shelved or implemented with enormous confusion.

The Tung administration's political skills are poor. Staff members are civil servants who cannot handle an increasingly assertive and demanding community. The advisers in the Executive Council are mostly businessmen and professionals without polished political skills.

Mr Tung himself does not consider persuasion and negotiation important.

The Chief Executive's paternalistic and conservative image does not appeal to a crowd who still remembers former governor Chris Patten's friendliness and casual manner. His administration fails to establish priorities. It has issued more than 100 consultation papers to seek the public's views on all sorts of topics.

Like Mr Carter, Mr Tung fails to establish a structure of delegation. His approach to establishing a sound decision-making process is completely the opposite to Mr Carter's but is equally problematic. Unlike Mr Carter, Mr Tung surrounds himself with ''yes'' men and women. Conflicts do not appear. Neither do balanced views.

Mr Carter's major success was his achievements in human rights and the rule of law. By contrast, these are areas of concern under Mr Tung's governance. Some leading figures or their relatives have escaped prosecution, arousing suspicion about favouritism. The administration's decision in 1999 to seek Beijing's reinterpretation of the Basic Law to overturn the Court of Final Appeal's landmark ruling on the right of abode substantially eroded judicial independence.

Democracy, an essence of the rule of law and human rights, does not exist in the SAR. All but 800 residents are deprived of the right to elect their chief executive. Only 24 of 60 legislators were directly elected. The others were either chosen by the Election Committee (the same one that elected the chief executive) or returned by designated business or professional groups.

If Mr Tung learns from Mr Carter's successes and failures during his second term, he will likely become an effective and respected leader. He should formulate a clear vision, establish a structure of delegation, appoint talented people as advisers, and safeguard human rights and the rule of law.

The tasks ahead are formidable. Even more formidable are obstacles possibly thrown up by the central Government whenever it feels Mr Tung's governance jeopardises its ultimate control.

Mr Tung has an inordinately complex task to convince Beijing to grant electoral reform and guarantee human rights in the SAR. If he blunders, they can sack him without reason thanks to the new Chief Executive Election Ordinance.