The model of cronyism

December 27, 2006

Perhaps one should not judge Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen too harshly. He is, after all, a product of his background: a big cog in the colonial bureaucratic machinery. He was a believer in doing as he was told by the hierarchy. He absorbed into his bones the combination of paternalism and arrogance of the colonial bureaucracy.

He truly believed the notion that they were a wise elite whose abilities underpinned Hong Kong's economic success and who well deserved to be the world's highest-paid senior civil servants. The self-image of himself and his colleagues fitted easily into the post-1997 circumstances, a hierarchical party which believed that it embodied national interest and a mainland bureaucracy which had always considered itself the glue which held the nation together.

Unfortunately, the qualities which might have made him successful on the mainland, a kind of bow-tied Premier Wen Jiabao , are not those fitted to the circumstances of a wealthy city-state with a well-educated population and traditions of free speech and a vigorous media. Nor are they those of a strong-minded individual of the likes of former premier Zhu Rongji , willing to ride roughshod over vested interests, if necessary at the peril of his own position, to achieve change.

Mr Tsang is trapped in a web which he did not create but from which he seems not to have the will to try to escape. Indeed, most actions suggest that he wants to strengthen the web of interests which protect not just him, but also bureaucratic and old-established business forces from changes that society wants and needs.

It is not that Mr Tsang has proved totally oblivious to opposition to his policies. The rapid retreat on a goods and services tax was a good example. But that was the result of nothing more than his unwillingness to stand up to the business interests who support him and offer high-paying jobs to former civil servants to influence policies.

Although I have always been critical of the GST proposal, the speed with which Mr Tsang abandoned it was instructive. The retreat provided a stunning contrast to the pig-headed arrogance with which he addressed environmental issues, the harbour, the Star Ferry and other matters where public sentiment is generally at odds with bureaucratic and business interests.

These two groups are now closer than they ever were under the colonial system and Mr Tsang seems determined to cement those bonds. Note the appointment of civil servants to so many quasi-government organisations and businesses. Note the appointment of the offspring of tycoons of an earlier era to cosy government-related jobs and advisory positions.

The increase in cronyism and the crony mentality will be further enhanced if our chief executive proceeds with his plan for a new tier of politic-bureaucrats. Instead of enhancing political participation and public debate on key issues, this has all the hallmarks of toadyism accompanied by big rewards in power and salary for loyal followers.

What is truly disappointing is that someone who - as a youthful son of a police sergeant would have learned of the pervasive corruption of the police force prior to 1974, was financial secretary during the 1997 crisis in other Asian economies, and can daily see the ravages of corruption on the mainland - is apparently so unaware of the cronyism in his own ranks.

The sheer intellectual dishonesty of some of Mr Tsang's existing crop of toadies has been astonishing. Even those willing to believe the worst of some ministers find it hard to understand why they continue to spread untruths about the real state of Hong Kong's air, let alone why they resist serious attempts to do much about it. In some cases, the influence of certain big sectors, such as the power companies, is obvious. In others, it seems that bureaucrats are simply not willing to listen to facts which contradict their own assumptions or policies.

The arrogance of spoiled, overpaid officials is not just the result of the distorted make-up of the Legislative Council or the method of choosing the chief executive. It has the personal stamps of Mr Tsang and Chief Secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan.

With their narrow experience and assumptions of being a wise elite, they tend to keep power within a small circle of like-minded people who are appointed to boards, committees and departments. Secrecy and stealth are the watchwords on key land and planning issues, and public consultations remain, for the most part, scripted in advance. Official links to big business ensure that they continue to protect monopolies and oligopolies from competition which would benefit society but cut money-making potential.

In short, the administrative system itself has become dysfunctional and a dead weight on a vibrant society whose entrepreneurs and unskilled workers alike have to support an entrenched aristocracy.




E-mail me 
IHT Articles 
Other Articles