Charmed Lives in Overlapping Inner Circles
SCMP April 24, 2011
In the days of syndicated police corruption forty years ago it used to be said that a police officer could “get aboard the bus and take his cut, or run alongside the bus knowing what was going on but not profiting personally, or stand in front of the bus – and get run over”. Many in the force saw the extra rewards as payoffs for their loyalty to the colonial regime particularly during the 1967 Cultural Revolution disturbances.
Donald Tsang must remember all that as the son of a police family who joined the government as an executive officer in 1967 but was quickly elevated to the elite administrative grade. So does Tsang ever wonder whether the ills of the pre-ICAC police are now found in other parts of government?
The Ombudsman's report on the repeated failure of government departments to enforce building laws in the New Territories is damning – but surely no surprise given the number of media reports of such failings over several years – one included repeated law breaches by a cousin of Tsang over land acquired when Tsang was district officer in Shatin.
The administration has long given the impression that it lives in awe of the feudal system in the NT represented by the Heung Yee Kuk. That awe now seems to extent to the Legislative Council which let the Kuk's boss, executive Lau Wong-fat, off with the mildest of rebukes for failing to disclose numerous land transactions.
The point at which collusion between government and certain businesses crosses the line from mutual back-scratching to actual corruption is a fine one. But popular perceptions of collusion are constantly reinforced by the links between senior civil servants, past and present, with business. Once a member of the bureaucratic elite you join a forever charmed circle whether or not you quietly got British citizenship when Tsang was helping run the British nationality selection scheme in the late 1980s.
Take the low-key and uncontroversial Wilfred Wong Ying-wai? From a directorate level position in the civil service he moved to the property sector – K Wah, Henderson, Shui On and is now executive chairman of Hsin Chong Construction. Fine. But what, apart from his connections with Tsang and other civil servants and as a politically correct delegate to the National Peoples Congress, makes him qualified for a slew of government appointments including chairman of the Arts Development Council, the International Film Festival Society, the Court and Council of Baptist University plus member of the Tourism Board, Airport Authority etc?
More obviously disturbing is the contempt shown by the New World group for criticism of its appointment of retired housing chief Leung Chin-man to a top job by promptly giving him a consultancy contract with a related company. New World's disdain for propriety, let alone public sentiment, harms Tsang not only because his brother was quickly recruited when he retired from the police but because New World group companies were conspicuous contributors to his election campaign.
Standard Chartered Bank is another to see the value of connections. Katherine Tsang, the chief executive sister's, may be a remarkable person. She would need to be progress from a middle ranked human resources person with the Hongkong government to the top all-China job with a major bank, the very same bank which provided a comfortable senior slot for a couple of years between government posts for Norman Chan Tak-lam, now head of the Monetary Authority. At least the bank has a reputable recent history. The same cannot be said of Albert Yeung, of the Emperor Group which possible chief executive candidate Rita Fan joined when governor Patten dispensed with her services on Exco.
Small circle government may be a result of the lack of democratic development. But it is not a necessary result. Rather it is the result of defensiveness of Hongkong's elite, a circling of the wagons against change and social mobility. It is particularly important to change this culture rather than move towards the mainland practice where access to riches more often comes through political connections to state enterprises rather than through entrepreneurship and hard work.