Sunday December 5 2010

Enough of civil service 'oversights'

Philip Bowring

Upper-middle-level Hong Kong bureaucrats are intelligent, well-educated people. They are also known to be hard working. So how come there are such frequent 'mistakes' or failures to spot 'oversights' when it comes to issues relating to land and development involving influential companies or individuals? How come millions, even billions, of dollars of public money are lost to private profit as a result of 'mistakes' committed by civil servants or their turning a blind eye to illegal land use?

I recollect writing about a far-below-market land premium paid in the 1980s for the site now occupied by Fairmont House in Central. That article led the auditor general to conclude that more than HK$100 million of public money had been lost. But no one was ever punished as the bureaucrats closed ranks and no one could be found accountable. Since then, such occurrences have continued but without culprits being named or the Independent Commission Against Corruption launching any action.

Some will attribute these occurrences to the collusion widely believed to exist between officials and big companies, more often a broad belief in shared interests than anything more sinister. However, many find it impossible to believe that there are not, in some cases, more specific pay-offs involved but which are easily hidden as pay-offs made indirectly and at a date in the future.

The failure of the ICAC to prosecute big cases is doubtless mainly attributable to the difficulty in obtaining evidence. It is so much easier to catch junior policemen receiving free sexual services from prostitutes than those who receive high-paying private sector jobs some time after making a 'mistake'. But the absence of will to go after big-money cases also reflects a reluctance to bring the names of big companies into the frame. Prosecuting recipients of bribes cannot reasonably be done without prosecuting the payers. That is not something welcome to the political leadership.

Do not imagine that the ICAC is as 'independent' as its name suggests. For years now its top job has been a senior bureaucrat post like any other. It is a creature of the very apparatus it should be policing. Perhaps this has something to do with the lingering animosity between the ICAC and the police, revealed again recently in the high-profile manner in which the police went about arresting ICAC officers on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

The existence of one law for the influential and one for the lower orders is on display in another way. Oligopoly interests, including those of the bureaucracy itself, continue to hold up and water down a competition law. The government aims to exclude its own numerous trading offshoots - the likes of the MTR Corporation, airport, mortgage corporation, stock exchange - from the legislation. Meanwhile, quiet collusion at land auctions is still widely assumed.

At the same time, the government has been going to great lengths to convict 17 market stallholders of conspiracy to defraud the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department by agreeing not to bid against each other. The Court of Final Appeal threw out the government case. But the extent to which the government was prepared to go against the lowest rung of retailers is a shocking contrast to the way it acts towards big business and conspiracies to keep out competition, in supermarkets for example.

The middle and lower ranks of the civil service continue to provide mostly reliable, efficient and uncorrupt service. But, at the higher levels, there is evidence of both empire-building and failure to maintain a separation of power between the civil service and political and business interests, a crucial feature of 'one country, two systems'. This trend was exacerbated by appointments made by a chief executive who was formerly chief bureaucrat. Let us hope his successor has a different background and self-made status.




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