Bureaucrats still tainted by the smell of collusion
SCMP August 6 2007
Personally, I do not feel that strongly about the fate of Queen's
Pier - the Star Ferry pier was historically more significant. But I
do feel strongly about the mix of arrogance, ignorance and corruption
(yes, corruption) displayed by the senior bureaucracy over so-called
development projects. Queen's Pier is the most conspicuous at present,
but similar incidents are all too frequent.
Last Friday, the Planning Department chose to brush aside a public
consultation - which saw 1,006 local opponents and only eight in favour
- and press ahead with changes to the Hung Hom town plan, apparently
to help Cheung Kong and DHL use a pier for commercial purposes.
Looking for some roots of these planning issues, and how supposed
rules have often been bypassed, it is worth recalling that this is
the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution disturbances.
Then, the likes of Tsang Yok-sing were praising the works of Mao Zedong
while Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his police family were standing shoulder
to shoulder with the colonial government.
The loyalty, in 1967, of the locally recruited police and civil service
was rewarded with better pay, perks and promotions and, as far as the
police was concerned until the 1974 establishment of the Independent
Commission Against Corruption, an indulgent attitude to syndicated
Senior bureaucrats learned from the colonial system to believe in
their own brilliance, in leadership by a cadre of intelligent persons
able to determine what was best for the rest, free from the vulgar
influences of party politics.
Very high salaries and very generous pensions and perks were the reward
for their supposed excellence and freedom from corruption.
Fast forward to today. Queen's Pier is about the determination of
the bureaucrats to drive a highway through the middle of the city,
filling in more of the harbour and cutting it off from urban life.
This is partly arrogance: the 'we-know-best' mentality. Once the bureaucrat-for-life
planners have decided something, they will press ahead - regardless
either of public opinion or reasoned policy.
It is partly ignorance: living in their comfortable cocoons, the planners
know little about advanced cities from Singapore to Sydney and Seoul,
not to mention London, Paris or Boston. There, inner city roads are
being knocked down or buried, private vehicles taxed, money spent on
public and less polluting transport.
It is partly corruption, not of the crude cash-in-an-envelope kind
but of giving favours to construction and development companies in
the expectation of eventual rewards in the form of lucrative post-retirement
sinecures, and the like. Even those who have no desire to end up working
for a developer may feel promotion prospects could be in jeopardy if
they oppose the interests of businesses close to the chief executive
and his supporters in the Legislative Council.
The public well understands that there is indeed collusion between
big business and a top bureaucracy which is often more concerned with
its own interests than the public's. Nor is the ICAC much of a guard
against sophisticated forms of high-level corruption. It is now simply
another part of the bureaucracy, not a genuinely independent entity.
The collusion does not just revolve around development projects, the
building of roads and bridges that are not needed, and arbitrary changes
in planning rules. Take the Mandatory Provident Fund. From the start,
it was obvious that this was a golden gift to a few suppliers. Fees
were ridiculous and employee choice of provider non-existent.
Only after years of criticism is pressure finally building to cut
costs to levels seen in other societies so that the public, rather
than a finance sector clique favoured by the bureaucracy, gets the
main benefit of its forced savings. But the smell of collusion remains.
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