Web of influence
The role of an increasingly politicised civil service is becoming an ever greater obstacle to Hong Kong's development. It is loath to take bold decisions, for example on the environment, and instead ends up spending its energy on damage control when minor crises hit - as they have done over health and food issues. At the same time it is infinitely protective of its own people and interests.
Bureaucracies everywhere are prone to these faults but the blurred lines between the responsibilities of senior civil servants and their appointed political masters are making matters worse. The recent career of former ICAC commissioner Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun illustrates several aspects of the problem.
First, the Independent Commission Against Corruption can, in no sense, be described as independent. It is just another part of the civil service machinery. She got the post in a job swap with Raymond Wong Hung-chiu, who went to her education portfolio. When she was forced to resign after the fracas over her education role vis-a-vis the Hong Kong Institute of Education, she was succeeded by another lifelong civil servant Timothy Tong Hin-ming, former commissioner of customs and excise - a responsible but scarcely top level job.
Surely the ICAC, which should be focusing much attention on the interface between government and private sector, especially in major land and construction issues, should be headed by someone independent of the civil service hierarchy. Someone at the end of a distinguished career outside government and with a reputation for integrity and independence. Is that simply too dangerous for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his colleagues to contemplate?
But Mrs Law's recent treatment exemplifies the lack of both backbone and common sense so often shown by the bureaucracy. Having belatedly been driven to tighten up rules governing employment by retiring civil servants, it went overboard with restrictions on Mrs Law working for the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. Surely, if senior civil servants are to be allowed to retire early on generous pensions, they should be encouraged or even expected to work for charitable and educational institutions at modest salaries.
Meanwhile, one must ask what the ICAC has been doing all these years turning a blind eye to the potential for abuse of lax rules. This column alone has often wondered about the numerous instances of 'technical errors' by civil servants that have provided vast profits to developers and whether these were somehow linked to post-retirement jobs in private sector companies whose profits depend heavily on deals with the government. The public's suspicion of collusion between civil servants and developers is extremely well founded. New cases - for example, relating to profiteering from supposedly public space - are frequent.
It took the public storm created by former housing chief Leung Chin-man's move to the New World Group in the wake of his role in the sale of the Hung Hom Home Ownership Scheme development to force the civil servants to backtrack. The government's own job-vetting process in his case has been shown up as a sham and, by implication, the ICAC's corruption prevention department as equally tolerant of the existence of the potential for abuse that has long been evident to outsiders.
Nor has the government in general learned any lessons. Take the case of the ombudsman, a job that is about rectifying government mistakes and abuse of power. Ideally, again, this is a post that should be - and sometimes has been - occupied by an independent person from outside the civil service. But the latest appointee is Alan Lai Nin, an administrative officer who recently retired as permanent treasury secretary and is a former ICAC commissioner.
The government is so unwilling to listen that it cannot even take criticism from the retiring ombudsman, who also came from within. Alice Tai Yuen-ying's reference to the governance problems created by the interface between the administrative service and the ministerial system produced an instant denial by officials who view all criticism as hostile. No wonder Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen needed to be put in charge of tree-cutting.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator