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 families.

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 malls.




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