Money and power talk - more than ever today
'There has been a gentrification of triad society.' It was a stark assessment of Macau by former Hong Kong policeman Steve Vickers, who now heads the security and investigation agency International Risk. Mr Vickers cited undocumented gambling visits by mainland officials to launder illegally obtained cash, the appearance of murdered bodies along the nearby Chinese coast and graft charges against senior government figures as examples of the worsening situation.
Perhaps the situation is now beginning to turn around as a result of the trial of former transport and public works minister Ao Man-long. Whatever the trial result, the depth of the problem is obvious from the sheer number of charges and the identities of those companies and individuals named in the allegations. Beijing is clearly keen to see a cleanup, but whether one can be achieved is another matter, given the involvement of so many mainland officials and firms with the Macau gambling and entertainment industry.
Of course, Macau has always had some of these problems, a natural outcome of an economy so dependent on gambling, loan sharking and sex. But Hong Kong must not become too complacent about the potential for the gentrification of sleaze, as those with money or assumed connections to power become able to ignore the law.
From small beginnings such habits can easily grow. I could hardly fail to notice the apparent unconcern both for the law and the interests of ordinary citizens last week on Wyndham Street in Central, close to both Government House and the Central Police Station.
On three successive evenings I noticed that, outside a new entertainment establishment, a desk had been set up, manned by receptionists and bouncers. This occupied at least half the narrow pavement. And, on an adjacent road, ignoring large 'No Parking' signs and a bus stop, several expensive vehicles had been parked.
On one occasion, I approached the staff and complained about the obstruction on the pavement. I was told to mind my own business. There were, I was told, 'very important people inside'.
So there we have it. The police can hardly be unaware of the situation. Nor can the bus company, whose drivers and passengers are so inconvenienced by the obstructions. Somebody high up must have told the police not to interfere with these continuing breaches of the law, and behaviour which has potentially placed pedestrians in danger.
Pandering to the self-importance of the rich and powerful is not new. But it seems to be getting worse. Last week also saw what was supposed to be a high-profile sail through Hong Kong harbour of a replica of the three-masted sailing ship The Bounty. Made for the 1984 movie The Bounty, the vessel, previously based in Sydney, has been acquired by Hong Kong Resorts International.
Discovery Bay ferry crews and local volunteers were given training in the complexities of hoisting and managing some of the 19 sails of an 18th-century vessel so that it could make a suitably impressive debut. But, alas, the invited dignitaries didn't have time for a real sail. So, The Bounty sat broadside spewing diesel fumes at Pier Three in Central, invisible to all but those in nearby buildings. Speeches were made about boosting tourism but a large media attendance was not reflected in the coverage of a singularly unphotogenic event.
Hong Kong Resorts International has set up the Zheng He foundation with a view to eventually build a replica of the great Chinese sailor's flagship, believed to have been three times the length of The Bounty. But, given events last week, one has to wonder whether The Bounty replica will ever be seriously sailed. That would require spending money on acquiring an experienced crew and maintaining the sails and rigging, rather than allowing it to become another party boat to be motored around Hong Kong waters.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator