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
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
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
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.
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