2007-03-20 13:23:00

�mSCMP�n Frank Ching: Shows with a difference

Last week's debate between the candidates for chief executive, like the first one, went very well - it engaged large sections of the community. Visitors to Hong Kong find it difficult to understand why there is so much interest when most people do not have the right to vote.

The challenger, Alan Leong Kah-kit, repeatedly emphasised that point in his presentation. If he hadn't, it would have been easy to forget that only the 796 members of the Election Committee will choose the next chief executive, rather than the entire adult population.
There is little doubt that we are seeing before our eyes the transformation of Hong Kong's political culture.

There was another election, a decade ago, in which only 400 members of a body known as the Selection Committee had the right to vote. That election, too, aroused much interest in the community, since it was to produce the first chief executive. It was a lively election largely because one of the candidates, businessman Peter Woo Kwong-ching, not only made himself available to the press but also released a position paper and sought public support - meeting various groups to explain his position on issues important to them. And once he did that, the other candidates followed suit. But there was no debate in 1996.

This year, for the first time, there were face-to-face debates by the two candidates; they were televised live and watched by millions. This has changed Hong Kong: now it isn't possible to imagine an uncontested election in the future or one where a candidate refuses to debate with a rival.

This is all well and good but, looking at the opinion surveys, it does seem as though the two debates changed very few minds. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen went into the first one with a hefty margin, and emerged from the second with about the same support.

Mr Leong has won much admiration for his performance and his debating skills, but his public support still hovers around the 24 to 25 per cent level, while that of Mr Tsang is about 65 per cent.
This seems to confirm the cynical view that the televised debates are not much more than shows put on for the entertainment of the public. But shows are not a bad thing - in fact, they are essential for good governance. It is difficult to imagine former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa taking part in such a debate. Remember that, when there were problems with the new airport in 1998, he refused to put in an appearance there. He claimed that his time would be better spent in the office, since experts were looking into the problems and he did not want to put on a show.

But the reality is that it is the chief executive's job to constantly demonstrate to the public that he is in charge and that they have nothing to worry about.

It is part of the chief executive's job - indeed, a very important component - to demonstrate that he is in charge by visiting the scene of a disaster or expressing sympathy for someone in hospital. On a superficial level this may be putting on a show, but it really is much more than that.

Besides, televised debates are extremely educational for all parties concerned: the candidates, their supporters and the public. Instead of simply delivering sound bites, candidates have to study key issues - and each other's positions on them - in depth.

Some people, such as Mr Leong, evidently thrive in this environment. But others, such as Mr Tung, are repelled, feeling that they should not have to perform like Roman gladiators.

Mr Tsang, it appears, approached the debate as an unpleasant chore, perhaps a challenge, but he has proved himself up to the task.
The cut and thrust of this debate has in a sense helped Beijing to finesse the demand for universal suffrage in Hong Kong this year. That is because the debate brought a sense of freshness and involvement.

But that cannot last very long. People will grow tired of the mere trappings of a real election. They will want a real election, plus the actual right to vote for the candidate of their choice.



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