Spineless officials raise their white flags again

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am

Now that Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat has joined the Executive Council, can it be long before it is tycoon Albert Yeung Sau-shing's turn to become a member of that august policymaking body? And while the chief executive is in appointing mood, maybe Li Ka-shing and Henry Cheng Kar-shun can be asked to join an advisory body to select the next head of the Securities and Futures Commission. After all, what is good for these tycoons is good for Hong Kong - or, at least, for Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his fellow senior civil servants who eat out of their hands.

The Heung Yee Kuk is itself a product of the very feudalism that the Communist Party was formed to fight. But the party, via its local embodiment the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, is in league with the New Territories landlords who make fortunes out of their 'traditional' rights from the 'non-indigenous' majority who live there.

Mr Lau's voters also appear to be very successful at frightening Mr Tsang's bureaucrats into doing nothing about their depredations of the New Territories. Barely a week goes by without the South China Morning Post reporting some land outrage in the New Territories which the relevant departments claim to be unable to address on the grounds of private land rights. The Lands Department, long a fiefdom of developer interests, is especially culpable, along with the Agriculture, Fisheries and (ahem) Conservation Department.

For instance, on February 13, the Post reported 'shocking damage' in the Pat Sin Leng country park with massive works that had been going on for more than a month. Three days earlier, the Post reported unauthorised land clearance in the Tai Lam country park. Such blatant abuse is in addition to the general despoliation of the New Territories by container and car dumps that also flout regulations. Why is this government incapable of addressing these issues? Is it laziness? Fear of retaliation? Or payoffs? Don't expect an answer from a government in which Mr Lau is a policymaker.

All this is reminiscent of the way the colonial authorities turned a blind eye to drug dealing and other activities in the Kowloon Walled City on the grounds that their jurisdiction was uncertain. Has Mr Tsang abandoned the New Territories to rule by Kuk voters headed by Mr Lau?

He has certainly abandoned Hong Kong's reputation as a financial centre to appease his own campaign financiers, the above-mentioned tycoons. It is hard to imagine a clearer example of official spinelessness in the face of private greed than Secretary for Financial Services Chan Ka-keung leaning on the Securities and Futures Commission and the stock exchange listing committee to withdraw the tightening up on trading by directors. Local tycoons seem to think they have a natural right to use their inside positions to trade regularly, shuffle assets around and treat outside shareholders with disdain.

Most of the influential tycoons are from the property sector and owe their wealth to successful exploitation of the fact that the government effectively controls land supply and hence prices. The relationship between them and past and present civil servants has long been a blot on Hong Kong's reputation, and a major contributor to high costs. Their grip on Mr Tsang and his colleagues seems as tight as ever despite the fact that their companies' importance to the local stock market has been in steady decline since the entry of mainland- and Taiwan-owned companies - which did not join the demand to withdraw the new rules.

This latest surrender to the tycoons might explain the continued resistance of the bureaucracy to tighter rules on collecting big salaries from them after retirement from government, while also enjoying the fat, inflation-proof pensions. At a time when the financial sector and special interests are under scrutiny, official surrenders to insiders and rural landowners are doubly shocking.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator