Accountability is not just for the little people
What would it take to persuade Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen that one of his senior officials or closest advisers needs to resign? Clearly, the payment of a large sum to settle insider-trading allegations is not enough, nor was Mr Tsang persuaded by the damning findings of an official commission of inquiry into allegations of undue interference in the running of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
The first case ended with David Li Kwok-po's resignation from the Executive Council over the weekend. But Mr Tsang had asked him to 'seriously reconsider his resignation', which came in the wake of a US$8.1 million settlement of a case brought against him by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. It charged Mr Li with breaching his duties of confidentiality as a Dow Jones board member by sharing confidential, market-moving information with a friend who profited from it.
In the second case, Mr Tsang brushed aside the findings of the inquiry he initiated which found that Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun had abused her position as education secretary to put pressure on the institute's president to dismiss a staff member who had criticised government education policy. 'I have tried, without success, to persuade her to stay,' said Mr Tsang when Mrs Law announced her early retirement, and pledged to her his 'full trust and support'.
In some ways, it is admirable that the chief executive seems determined to stand by old friends in trouble. But, in terms of public policy and the need to uphold the integrity and accountability of the government, Mr Tsang seems to believe that those closest to him can do no wrong.
There is a major difference between acknowledging the past service of officials and insisting that, even after they have severely compromised their position, they should remain in office.
Having worked as a lowly official in a ruling political party in Britain, I know that the initial response of any political figure in trouble is not to consider whether they have done anything wrong but to ask whether they can get away with it. Generally, they always believe that it will be possible to escape the consequences. But, in a mature political system, they are quickly disabused of this view and bundled out the door before their presence does any more damage.
In Hong Kong, where the government pays lavish lip service to the notion of accountability, there is a strong sense that certain people are not merely above the law, but beyond reproach. Or, to paraphrase the infamous statement of the American tax evader and heiress Leona Helmsley, they seem to think that accountability is only for the little people.
Can you imagine, for example, what would have happened to a more junior official at the Bank of East Asia, which Mr Li runs, if he or she were to have been the subject of an SEC investigation and subsequently paid an enormous sum to keep this offence out of court? The likelihood of this person keeping his or her job ranks with pigs flying.
But Mr Li remains at the helm of his bank and it is seriously suggested that not only did he do nothing wrong but there is no problem with him running yet again for the banking functional constituency in the Legislative Council. Anywhere else, such a suggestion would be dismissed with ribald derision but, in Hong Kong, stockbrokers are represented in Legco by a convicted fraudster, so this notion is far from fanciful.
Meanwhile, members of the club of the rich and powerful have rallied behind Mr Li in an impressive way. Ronnie Chan Chi-chung, the Hang Lung Group chairman - who is also embroiled in American legal proceedings, following the collapse of the Enron Corporation, of which he was a director - has gone so far as to suggest that the SEC can be compared to a thief who is persuaded to go away by the offer of money.
What are ordinary people in Hong Kong to make of this flouting of normal standards of decency?
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur