Accountability? It's still a foreign concept here

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2008, 12:00am

So, Lily Chiang Lai-lei, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, has finally decided to step aside despite previously saying that there was no need because she was innocent of fraud charges.

Instead of criticising her feeble attempt to hang on to office, her colleagues praised her for a supposedly dignified decision. No doubt they also breathed a sigh of relief, having avoided a battle to get her to go. In Hong Kong, holders of public office routinely seem to believe that they can cling to office while criminal charges or other major questions about their integrity remain unresolved. Elsewhere, such uncertainty ensures the rapid relinquishing of the public stage by those involved. Here, this practice is either ignored or only followed under extreme pressure after unwarranted delay.

Chiang leads Hong Kong's premier business body and is therefore expected to be beyond reproach. A trial may well reveal that she does indeed fulfil this requirement but, in the meantime, her predicament inevitably causes embarrassment for the organisation she leads.

She retains the title of chairwoman while fighting the criminal charges and could, in defence of her decision not to quit, cite a number of precedents for staying put - starting right at the top, where senior officials deem themselves not to be responsible for their actions, or are quick in passing the blame to others. The concept of 'the buck stops here' is only accepted with extreme reluctance.

It took an unseemly period of time before Antony Leung Kam-chung resigned as financial secretary in the wake of an enormous scandal involving his purchase of a Lexus ahead of a car sales tax rise he was about to announce in his budget. And when he went, he departed under a shower of praise from his bosses.

Even more fulsome praise greeted the departure of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee from the post of security secretary after her maladroit handling of the introduction of anti-subversion laws succeeded in mobilising some of the largest street protests seen in Hong Kong. To this day, she continues to present herself as a victim.

Lower down the government tree are other officials who give the impression that high standards of probity and competence are hardly requirements for senior positions. Most people have now forgotten the hapless Wong Ho-sang, who failed to understand the problem of heading the Inland Revenue Department while his wife ran a company giving advice on taxation.

In a society where the most senior officials are reluctant to accept responsibility for their actions, it is unsurprising that this careless attitude spreads to the political sector. When, for example, Gary Cheng Kai-nam was exposed as providing paid advice to parties with a vested interest in legislation that he was helping to formulate - without declaring an interest - his Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong allies did their best to protect him. They only backed off when he faced criminal charges and was subsequently jailed.

And the benefit of the doubt appears to have operated even more spectacularly in favour of the convicted fraudster Chim Pui-chung, who emerged from jail with his trademark smile and proceeded to regain election in one of the Legislative Council's functional constituencies.

Mr Chim is not alone among former convicted criminals serving as legislators; the National People's Congress Standing Committee has, among its members, Tsang Hin-chi, convicted not once but twice of fraud. Were it the case that this spirit of forgiveness was extended to all criminals who have served their time, it might be easier to understand why such generosity seems to apply to prominent government supporters.

So, Chiang had reason to ask why she should step aside. But the question is not for her alone. How much longer will the Hong Kong public tolerate leaders who think that setting an example and taking responsibility is somehow none of their business?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur