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Colonial echoes as Tung shuts out the people

Can it really be just a month since the installation of the new order in Hong Kong? The question arises because in this very short space of time a sea change has swept through the former colony's civil service which was forced kicking and screaming into a more open existence under the former Governor Chris Patten.

His insistence on open government and accountability was not met with enthusiasm by the 180,000 strong civil service, which saw itself as an elite responsible only to its own leaders. The Patten regime forced even the most humble civil servant to recognise that he or she was also responsible to the public, even if in only minor ways such as answering telephone enquiries and replying to letters in days rather than months.

Now Mr Patten has gone. A collective sigh of relief was almost audible from recalcitrant members of the service who were never really happy being exposed to daylight. The new order does not encourage openness. Tung Chee Hwa, the Chief Executive, is affable but highly reserved in communicating with the public, except in the most general of terms. His office has gathered power within its confines and delegates authority with great reluctance.

Officials have got the new message very quickly. On a recent visit to a school, pupils were instructed not to touch Mr Tung as this would inconvenience him. This is a far cry from the Patten days when no outstretched hand would be disappointed by lack of a tactile response.

Residents of a public housing estate, visited by Mr Tung, were instructed not to raise any controversial subjects if he decided to talk to them and to emphasise positive things. This kind of heavy handed people management was a hallmark of the old style colonial regime given a battering by a determined Chris Patten who would announce district visits at the last minute to prevent officials from staging elaborate receptions.

It seems unlikely that Mr Tung himself has ordered his officials to go back to their old ways but his style of government, which is similar to the style of running his family's shipping company, is conducive to the restoration of colonial practices.

The new atmosphere of government is evident in both big and small ways. A visit to the government vehicle licensing centre, one of the biggest departments dealing directly with the public, quickly revealed that officials were back to their old leisurely mode of what passes for service. Combining the ability to be indolent and brusque, they allowed monster queues to form and were unperturbed by the inconvenience caused.

Meanwhile, the government has announced sweeping changes to the electoral system and allowed no more than nine days for a consultation exercise on the matter. The public is not being allowed to discuss the substance of the changes, only the details of how they are to be implemented.

If the government is not much interested in what the public has to say, it seems equally uninterested in the views of the new legislature, installed by China, replacing the previously elected body. Although the legislators could hardly be described as assertive, even this tame body was somewhat taken aback to be ordered to pass legislation in a single day which overturned a raft of new employment legislation. Worried about being seen as no more than a rubber stamp, the legislators rebelled and said they needed at least a reasonable breathing space to consider the issues.

Although the new administration seems to have got off to a shaky start, the public appears not to be overly concerned. With the stock market consistently testing new highs, economic confidence remains buoyant. Indeed a survey conducted for two local newspapers showed that economic confidence has risen since the handover while political confidence remained at the same level as before.