Beyond Occupy, Hong Kongers are questioning governance everywhere.
Benevolent benefactors become wrathful tyrants when the next generation demands modern and transparent governance.
(Chinese Translation: 香港的管治覺醒)
There was a time in Hong Kong when most people didn’t bother themselves too much about governance and how it impacted their lives. As long as people thought things were run mostly competently and honestly, a little grumbling here and there about vested interests didn’t threaten to displace any of those interests. But a there seems to be a new dawn, a ‘governance awakening’, a veritable Childhood’s End of discontent reaching into every level of Hong Kong society.
The most visible manifestation of this was Occupy Central, where many people not previously interested the particulars of governance started paying attention. While ‘nomination committee discussion’ fatigue may be overwhelming people now, politicians have had to work double overtime to simplify the messages around reform and keep people’s interest. However, there seems to be a knock-on effect reaching into other organisations around Hong Kong.
‘a new dawn, a ‘governance awakening’, a veritable Childhood’s End of discontent reaching into every level of Hong Kong society.
People engaged in their local communities seem to be asking more questions. Stories covered in Harbour Times recently have included attempts for a changing of the guard in Cheung Chau, unrest at the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and turmoil at the Canadian International School. These wildly different situations all have questions of governance at their core and all came to a head in the last 8 months
Revolutionary becomes tyrant
It is possible that Occupy Central has caused people to look at the organisations they are involved in and question their adherence to mission and how they are governed. Old organisations often seek new blood, at particular stages in their development, to avoid becoming irrelevant and energise and grow their support base. However, entrenched interests and ‘founders for life’ can, over time, become covetous and imperial in their administration. The once scrappy start-up charity becomes a leviathan, with a Politburo at the top. The reality of being a benefactor is replaced with a sense of entitlement combined with a detachment from the current stakeholders. Attempts by present day stakeholders have a meaningful say becomes outright conflict as outdated directors maintain control for control’s sake, expelling anyone who dares cross them and destroying the edifices they built in their prime.
Our pan-dem political parties suffer from this, resulting in alienation and fragmentation as younger stakeholders seeking change see no opportunities for themselves. The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra has recently fired respected musicians who dared to question the decisions of a group of people who founded it, continue to run it with massive taxpayer subsidies (80% of budget). The Orchestra has had the same Chair for all but two of its 14 years – when that person still sat on the Council for one year and was vice-Chair for the other.
‘wildly different situations all have questions of governance at their core
The recent upheavals at The Canadian International School (CDNIS) are very similar where a group of ‘Members’ control access to the Board and have used it to eject voting members and reject nominees year after year. This longstanding group, with no children or current stake in the school, interfered to a point where mass resignations of senior administrators then led to a mass resignation of Governors* and two Members. While much of the anger has been directed at the new Head of School, it is the governance structure that has been identified as the root cause of problems by a range of those who quit the Board.
More people, with a heightened awareness of governance and how it impacts their lives, are going to be looking at the organsiations they are involved in and how they are run. Old Hong Kong charities, for example, are famous among those in the know for sitting on mountains of cash. Newcomers asking why the money is not spent on the beneficiaries have no chance to effect change, are discouraged, and often leave to become the next generation of charities, with modern governance in place.
Improving governance was much in fashion in the corporate world for some time, giving rise to concerned activists like David Webb, champion of minority shareholders. The financial crash saw an emphasis on external regulation and enforcement. The next wave, in Hong Kong, is coming in civic participation where people look around at their lives and organisations they are involved in ask if their governance is up to modern standards. Readers of Harbour Times, switched on, politically and civic minded individuals, are likely to be at the forefront of raising these questions.
‘outdated directors maintain control for control’s sake, expelling anyone who dares cross them and destroying the edifices they built in their prime.
Visitors always ask, “What is the biggest change since the Handover?” My answer is, without doubt, ‘the rise of civil society.’ The Occupy saga and ongoing questions about political reform have heightened awareness about governance in the organisations that not only touch our livelihoods, but those that touch our hearts. Founders of venerable organisations need to be in touch with the current appetite for modern governance and respond. If they do not, they will hold on only to see their legacies turn to dust in their hands.
*HT EiC Andrew Work is one of those who resigned in November. Letter here.