Power without responsibility

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am

Any scintilla of doubt has now been removed as to the very remarkable state of affairs in Hong Kong's governance. On the one hand, central control and politicisation reign over public institutions that once were given greater autonomy, while on the other hand so-called ministers, who are supposed to be part of an accountability system, are absolved of responsibility. In other words, there is greater control and less accountability.

Two incidents illustrate this state of affairs with some force. First, government appointees have ensured that Paul Morris, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, is to be removed from office for attempting to assert the independence of our leading teacher training institution. Secondly, Mike Rowse has been left to carry the can for the Harbour Fest debacle while his political masters have been completely absolved of responsibility.

In some ways the case of Professor Morris is more serious. It goes to the very heart of demolishing the autonomy of institutions that enjoy public funding but have, by tradition, been guided by peers in the field. Their expertise and insider knowledge are acknowledged to be above those of the bureaucrats working out of Lower Albert Road.

Professor Morris enjoys the rare distinction of being supported by the overwhelming majority of his staff and students who were keen for him to serve a further term of office. In addition, he is well regarded in the wider educational community that recognises his vigorous contribution to the development of teacher training. In most communities, these things matter and in the international academic world the interference of governments in appointments is regarded as signifying a form of control over education that characterises authoritarian states but is shunned in communities that cherish liberty.

The government's hand-picked council that was responsible for Professor Morris' demise has advanced spurious reasons for its action. It has singularly failed to explain why it did not have the gumption to support the people who have daily contact with the institute's president and know more than they how he is performing. Of course, governments have a right to direct education policy and the education minister, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, is entitled to advocate the merging of the institute with the Chinese University.

But advocacy is one thing, compulsion is quite another. In a free society, the autonomy of institutes of higher education is sacrosanct. They represent a vital, breathing lung of a society that values freedom of expression and autonomy in an area that governments like to control precisely because academics are often the most articulate critics of public policy. If they can be cowed, they can be silenced.

Meanwhile, Mr Rowse, the head of the InvestHK office, is to be fined for misconduct in the organisation of Harbour Fest, an admittedly ill-conceived and badly executed event. While he has been singled out for guilt, no consideration has been given to sanctioning his political masters who ordered him to put this show on the road. Most particularly, a wall of silence surrounds Henry Tang Ying-yen, who is now financial secretary but was Mr Rowse's boss at the time of the debacle.

Mr Tang is supposed to be part of the political accountability system that is said to be designed to ensure that the buck stops somewhere. Yet the buck did not even head in his direction as the Harbour Fest mess accumulated. On the contrary, Mr Tang disappeared from sight, leaving his subordinate as the last man standing in the firing line.

Since the accountability system began, not a single government minister has been called to account. Even when Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee resigned in the wake of the Article 23 national security legislation fiasco, she was not fired for bungling or criticised for her failures. On the contrary, she went out in a blaze of praise.

The same shower of plaudits greeted the demise of former financial secretary Antony 'Lexus' Leung Kam-chung, whose dubious car purchase, ahead of a budget, did not elicit criticism from his bosses but praise for his achievements.

Hong Kong, in other words, is moving towards that classic trap of fostering power without responsibility.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur