Show us your teeth
Where is the ICAC? Yes, it is busy going after lawyers' bar bills at the Foreign Correspondents' Club, errant lower rank policemen, and some of the lesser lights from the world of financial scams. But do not count on the anti-corruption body to keep the higher echelons of society feeling threatened by its existence.
Reporting directly to the chief executive, it should feel entirely independent of the rest of the bureaucracy and ought to fearlessly advise Tung Chee-hwa on how the rest of his administration, including the bureaus of Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and housing chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung, organise major projects and contracts.
Mr Tsang says that the tendering process for the West Kowloon 'cultural' project is being watched over by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Then how come it failed to raise objections to the woolly parameters in the bid invitations, let alone to the single-winner concept?
Worst of all, how come the ICAC failed to blow the whistle on Mr Tsang for allowing three bids to proceed when they all proposed plot ratios grossly in excess of the guidelines? If guidelines are to be so imprecise, the scope for arbitrary decision-making and, hence, corruption is massive. Add in the secrecy surrounding the commercial aspects of the bids, and you have a system closely resembling mainland 'privatisation' processes, with easy opportunities to create instant wealth for well-placed officials.
But do not expect too much from an ICAC run by Raymond Wong Hong-chiu, a lifetime bureaucrat still far from the end of his career, who may be understandably reluctant to become too unpopular with his civil service peers, or with the ministerial system which put him there. The position of ICAC commissioner has been gradually diminished since its first incumbent and a take-no-prisoners operations director were tough enough to confront the whole police force.
The government's determination to bypass the Legislative Council by giving away land rather than going through the correct budgetary process only adds to the problem by attempting to remove billion-dollar decisions from debate and scrutiny. Legco may at times be obstructive, but it provides some barrier not only against arbitrary government but also the corruption that unbridled bureaucratic power brings with it.
That is all the more the case given the ease with which senior bureaucrats, already furnished with hefty pensions, are allowed to take jobs with large enterprises. If these are rewards for services rendered in the past, the ICAC should be on the case. If the ex-bureaucrats are there to lobby their former colleagues on behalf of their new employer, their activities should be subject to intense scrutiny. Best of all, they should be prevented from taking jobs other than in educational or charitable organisations for at least five years after leaving government.
Then there is the failure of the ICAC to successfully prosecute cases involving land and development rights. Mysterious 'oversights' such as the construction of Parkview in a country park, the loss of $100-million-plus on the land premium for what is now Fairmont House, or the height of Coda Plaza are, however, nothing new.
Only now have we learned that for years, in the 1980s, the government failed to require payment of land premiums for the Discovery Bay development - and for some reason or other the government still does nothing to demand back payment or investigate those responsible.
Of course, colonial rule was even more arbitrary than today's system, and the Legislative Council an appointed, rubber-stamp body. But at least the colonial bureaucrats left the territory or lived quietly, rather than joining the likes of Jardines or Swire. Hong Kong, meanwhile, has grown up and expects a more accountable administration. The ICAC has a key role to play now, as when it took on syndicated corruption in the police in 1974. Get on with it.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator