CY Leung shows how not to earn trust in Hong Kong

Two months into his job and with a string of scandals under his belt concerning illegal basements and alleged ministerial and property tycoon bribery, alongside mounting local anti-mainland China sentiment over property prices and hospitals swollen with Chinese giving birth, Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung must be wondering how much more interesting the Chinese (purported) Chinese proverb ‘May you live in interesting times’ will get.

Much appears to depend on Beijing, and the extent to which it seeks to shape Hong Kong’s affairs, as well as on CY’s ability to stand up to the masters up north and be seen to be acting in the interests of the territory’s citizens.

However, the government’s ability to communicate effectively will also be critical. Seen through the prism of its handling of the recent national education farrago, the omens are hardly promising.

For one, the government’s efforts to convince citizens of the merits of patriotic education were minimal, with little attempt to engage or build a consensus amongst schools, academics and other educational opinion-formers.

Second, pro- national education advocates in politics, education and civil society, who the government should have rallied, were conspicuous by their silence, certainly relative to the cacophony of anti voices corralled by the activist group Scholarism.

Perhaps more important, the government was seen to have failed to listen to and understand the concerns of its people, not least those who would be most immediately impacted – youngsters and students – who formed the backbone of the street protests.

CY’s eventual dismissal of the national education plan as being ‘not something of our making‘ may account for his government’s half-hearted approach to selling it – and as such could be construed as clever politics. But it also sends the message to Hong Kongers that he seems to have little control over their destiny. Research indicates that people across Asia trust ‘earned’ forms of marketing and communications more than in other parts of the world, notably personal recommendations, online reviews and mainstream media articles.

It was also uncomfortably reminiscent of the mistake made by Henry Tang, his adversary earlier this summer for the chief executive job, who opportunistically blamed his wife for their illegal basement, holing his credibility and ending his campaign.

Meantime, Hong Kong today held its elections to the Legislative Council (aka LegCo). If, as expected, pro-democratic candidates do well, then demands for greater accountability and more transparent decision-making will only likely accelerate.

The government will need to be on top of its communication game.

Interesting times ahead.

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