Time for a Hong Kong spring clean
SCMP February 19 2012
'Would you buy a used car from this man?' The barbed slogan used in the 1972 campaign against the re-election of US president Richard 'Tricky Dick' Nixon seemed all too exact two years later with his resignation as a result of the Watergate scandal, a tale of illegal activities and cover-ups.
It is a reminder of the importance of trust in politics. The public recognises that politics is often a contest of half-truths and personal ambitions but it can also usually draw a distinction between political gamesmanship, competence and issues of personal integrity. Thus, Tung Chee-hwa's political position became untenable because of his apparent lack of competence in handling the economy, the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and Basic Law Article 23. But these never touched his integrity or undermined the public's generally positive view of him as a person.
Even before the latest revelations about his illegal underground palace, Henry Tang Ying-yen's trust deficit had reached such proportions that it is hard to see how a public which already favoured his opponent by a large margin would welcome his selection, let alone how it would respond were Hong Kong to face the crises such as those that confronted Tung.
Recent events have given the impression of the wider malaise that the public knows exists: the gap between the tycoons and their allies in the bureaucracy, and the increasingly un-silent majority. The former are accustomed to getting away with exceptional treatment, whether it relates to minor infractions such as parking offences or large-scale ones such as the failure to enforce land laws. They make observers wonder whose interests were being served when, for example, against a barrage of informed advice, the government pushed through such things as a multibillion-dollar incinerator using out-of-date technology. What is in the basement of such projects?
Tang is seen to represent not just inherited wealth but a sense of invulnerability. Thus, his most prominent backer is banker and legislative councillor David Li Kwok-po, the man who had to resign from the Executive Council after paying US$8million to settle US Securities and Exchange Commission allegations of insider trading in shares of Dow Jones & Co, of which he was a director. It was no minor matter that Hong Kong's best-known banker and head of its largest locally owned bank appeared not to appreciate the standards expected of directors of major international companies.
Tang may well have played no part in the none-too-veiled attempt to smear Leung Chun-ying with allegations of not revealing a possible conflict of interest in the West Kowloon design competition. But it is clear that his allies in the bureaucracy, which he headed until very recently, had no qualms about using the machinery of government on his behalf. Again, it shows the way in which an insider clique abuses its position to undermine the selection process and hence the modest amount of democracy involved. It appears that, having expected Tang to be a shoo-in, the insiders panicked at Leung's persistent big lead in opinion polls, which was raising worries among pro-Beijing groups.
Tang's attempt to blame his wife for the basement made millions cringe. But it would have come as little surprise to those who recall his role in the HarbourFest fiasco in 2003. Blame for this was dumped on Mike Rowse, the head of InvestHK, which had rather incongruously been given a vague supervisory role in a project promoted by a government committee headed by the financial secretary (first Antony Leung Kam-chung, then Tang), run by the American Chamber of Commerce and sponsored with public money. The rough-hewn outsider Rowse was publicly castigated and fined HK$156,000 under civil service disciplinary proceedings. He took the government to court and won in a case which revealed a tawdry litany of blame-passing by his superiors. He was in effect stitched up by a ministerial clique, including Tang.
Of course, trust, once lost, can be redeemed, but that takes a long time, and evidence that a person's qualities outweigh the flaws. So, do we trust Leung more than Tang? The evidence against Leung in the West Kowloon case is so far very vague and will remain that way unless and until the government releases all the documents. In any event, it was a decade ago and did not involve any actual expenditure. If that is the worst that can be dredged up against him, there is scant reason to worry about integrity.
The bigger problem with Leung is that no one knows what he stands for. Tang, or a replacement from the business-related group, is the devil we know. Leung is earnest, articulate and had a successful, self-made career in the private sector. His election manifesto says most of the right things in general terms - the need to address pollution, waste, housing, population issues and the like. It is not difficult to seem to be an agent of change given the immobility of the government over the past five years. But what they would mean in practice is less clear.
With or without Tang's scandals, opinion polls indicate that people want change, new faces and less collusion. A new broom is needed to sweep away not just a discredited Tang but the attitudes that he and his allies represent. This is proving a cathartic experience, and a Hong Kong spring may be at hand.