SAR leaders need to improve their public image: political expert

Sunday, August 24, 2008
Issue 445, Page 6
Word count: 739
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

Although Hong Kong and Macau have not yet adopted universal suffrage, a political scholar from Hong Kong said yesterday that SAR leaders still needed to be concerned about their popularity in society in order to avoid becoming “a replica of Tung Chee-hwa”.

Tung was the first elected Chief Executive of Hong Kong who, just three years into his second five-year term, announced his resignation in March 2005 citing “health reasons” after he was strongly criticised by the community.

During his administration, on July 1, 2003, the largest protest in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover was seen in which some 500,000 people took to the streets to oppose the legislation of the Basic Law Article 23 and the government’s incompetent handling of the SARS crisis in the same year.

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, senior instructor of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was invited by the New Macau Association to give a seminar yesterday about political communication by referring to past elections in Taiwan, mainland China and the United States.

Commonly known as “spin doctors”, Mr Choy said political communication is a new technique in modern western democracies to help election candidates attract more support from voters and to let the public understand a politician’s platform.

Although spin doctoring was a relatively new strategy in Taiwan, the scholar said recent presidential elections showed that it was “quite successful” and thus he believed the two SARs should learn the same techniques.

“Even in mainland China, Premier Wen Jiabao is very successful in delivering his image in a sympathetic way to the marginal or grass-root groups of the Chinese society,” Mr Choy said.

In November 2007, the Chinese Premier visited several AIDS-hit villages in the central Henan province which further consolidated Wen’s reputation in the country.

The Premier also made visits to victims of other major disasters in the country or had Chinese New Year Eve dinners with the most disadvantaged communities, Mr Choy said.

“The message the Premier has been delivering to the population is that he represents a new value in which he is on the side of the marginal groups who cannot benefit from the economic development process,” he added.

By showing footage of how Taiwanese and American presidential candidates delivered their messages and platforms to the public, the Hong Kong scholar said it illustrated the significance of political communications for modern politicians especially in the coming elections in the two SARs.

Hong Kong will have its fourth-term Legislative Council election on September 7, while Macau’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections will for the first time be held in the same year of 2009.

Asked what candidates running for the next Chief Executive election should particularly look at when trying to develop their political values under the current social atmosphere, Mr Choy told the Macau Daily Times that “building a clean government and fighting against corruption” would be important elements as people here have “a lot of sentiment ” on these issues.

However, Mr Choy also pointed out that as both Hong Kong and Macau do not have a democratic political system, election candidates do not necessarily need to “catch the social sentiment” in order to attract the largest share of votes from the public.

“As only a small circle of people can determine who can be the candidates running for a Chief Executive election, it’s not about the dissatisfaction of the general public but that of the small group of people,” the scholar said.

“But still, politicians need to build up a positive reputation and care about public sentiment as no one wants to have another Tung Chee-hwa who was overturned by half a million Hong Kong people on the streets,” he added.

Mainland China, Mr Choy said, “is not a democratic country” but leaders still have to be concerned with the public perception as shown in the example of Premier Wen Jiabao who now enjoys “very high popularity”.

According to Mr Choy, politicians should build up their values through political communication so that people cast their votes according to which values they support rather than the candidates themselves.

However, the scholar said he admitted that there were some spin doctors who tried to “beautify” politicians which usually involved some “deception”.

“Of course it’s a bad spin. A good spin is only to let people comprehend complicated political messages easier rather than to distort a politician’s image,” he added.

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