Jobs for the boys
SCMP April 2, 2007
It's time to turn away from the city' s inner circle of power brokers
and rich families.
Forget for a moment the extraordinary, but not uncommon, arrogance
of the bureaucracy as illustrated by the Hong Kong Institute of Education
affair. Forget for a moment wondering whether a person apparently as
obsessed with power as Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun is the appropriate person
to run the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which is supposed
to put principles before power. Now, stop to consider the issue of
where political horse-trading ends and corruption begins.
Almost the first act of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen following
his election - by one in 10,000 Hongkongers - was to appoint Liberal
Party leader James Tien Pei-chun to head the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
It was widely reported that the replacement of one Liberal party legislator,
Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, by another was related to the policy and
voting behaviour of Mr Tien and his party.
Personally, I have no idea whether these reports were true. But the
fact is that they have been made and, as far as I am aware, not denied.
In any event, it is surprising to a lay observer that Mr Tien was appointed,
given both the number of hats he already wears and his lack of experience
with the major industries in the tourism sector.
But Mr Tsang seems not to care very much about whether public offices
should be handed out as political rewards or to satisfy the vanity
of pro-government politicians. The Tourism Board is a publicly funded
body that is supposed to promote an industry which affects all Hongkongers.
It should not be considered a political gift.
The appointment is all too typical of Hong Kong's 'small-circle' politics
and the handing out of jobs to senior ex-bureaucrats and members of
prominent families. It was similarly typical in the row over the management
of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation when its chairman, Michael
Tien Puk-sun - brother of James - was able to prevail over professional
managers. Mr Tien behaved like an executive chairman or the owner of
a family fiefdom rather than as the non-executive chairman of a company
owned by Hongkongers. Yet Mr Tsang allowed him to prevail.
It is perhaps no coincidence, either, that yet another scion of a
famous and very rich family should be at the centre of a row in which
the executive and bureaucracy seek to dictate policies as well as use
a web of board appointees and assorted shoe-shiners to get its way
regardless. I personally have no view on whether the HKIEd should be
merged with Chinese University. But the issue was worthy of a public
airing from which Arthur Li Kwok-cheung - as former chancellor of the
university - would have done well to distance himself.
Following the election, Mr Tsang acknowledged that officialdom was
often remote from public concerns, and promised to try to rectify this.
That was an admirable sentiment. He may not be able to get very far
in persuading Beijing to allow a faster extension of the franchise
- even assuming he actually wants that.
But there is a huge amount he can do, if he really wants, to widen
the base of power in Hong Kong - namely, by appointing people from
outside the charmed circle of ex-bureaucrats and members of leading
In fact, he promised to do just that some time ago, but nothing much
appears to have changed. Advisory bodies consist largely of people
who can be relied on to say 'yes' to government proposals.
There are other things he could do to make Hong Kong a more open and
more free market society. First, raise the retirement age for the bureaucracy
to 65, and halt the practice of moving 55-year-old 'retired' bureaucrats
into executive jobs with government-linked companies.
Second, set about abolishing some of the quasi-non-governmental organisations
that have flourished in recent years to the detriment of an open economy
and plural distribution of power.
These include the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation, a totally unnecessary
body in an economy as well banked and financially serviced as Hong
Kong. The Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority is a useless bureaucracy
that wastes money and perpetuates an uncompetitive and high-cost scheme.
Then there is Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing - which should be fully
privatised and its regulatory function passed to the Securities and
Futures Commission. There is also a host of lesser bodies that hand
out funds or favours to a chosen few.
Finally, there is the Tourism Board itself. It is closely associated
with both massive misallocations of government funds, such as Hong
Kong Disneyland, and failures to resist bureaucrats' destruction of
distinctive local attractions in favour of yet more roads and shopping
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