Donald's black hole

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2009, 12:00am

Now that Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen finds himself unfavourably compared to his hapless predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, he appears to be trapped in the vortex which forces flaying politicians further and further down a hole from which they are unlikely to emerge.

This impression was confirmed this week by Tsang's response to accusations of nepotism. He unwittingly fuelled his descent by ignoring every lesson of political behaviour. The great minds in Government House think they know better and launched him on a disastrous course of counter-attack.

As a young and minor political party official employed to buzz around the corridors of Parliament in London, it was drummed into me that politicians in personal trouble have but two alternatives. The first was 'don't complain, don't explain'; that seemed to work best when the media got overexcited by very little indeed. Option number two was called upon when explanation was unavoidable. In this instance, speed was of the essence and the response had to be seen as measured, not petulant and certainly not in the form of a suggestion of conspiracies because, once the person in trouble attributes conspiratorial behaviour to others, the public will assume that conspiracy is nurtured in the bosom of the accused.

Tsang and his advisers took the brave decision to ignore these relatively well-established ground rules and initially remained mute, then allowed some of their acolytes to mutter some disparaging words and finally allowed the chief executive to belatedly respond. In so doing, he mixed petulance with accusations of conspiracy against the government. An issue that could have been tackled with relative ease has now lodged in the public mind as another indication that something is seriously wrong with this administration.

The accusations are trivial: Tsang is alleged to have helped out his in-laws who sell light bulbs by introducing a scheme to encourage the purchase of energy-saving bulbs. And it has been suggested that his influence helped his sister-in-law obtain prior settlement of claims for redress arising out of the Lehman minibond scandal. In both instances, the evidence of direct nepotism is tenuous and, in the matter of light bulbs, even more so.

However, the Tsang regime has only itself to blame. Its arrogant behaviour encourages the idea of cronyism and indifference to the needs of ordinary people. A slew of government appointments to official posts and bodies that the chief executive controls suggest that what matters to this administration is who you know, not what you know.

Moreover, while the door remains largely closed to meetings between the government and its critics, it is flung wide open to the rich and well connected. By unfortunate coincidence, on the day that the chief executive chose to rebuff criticism of nepotism, his financial secretary was greeting tycoons from the property sector; such is the state of insularity in this government that this coincidence was unlikely to have been noticed.

All this would be overlooked if there was a feeling that the government was not being run largely for the benefit of those who have most. As house prices soar, the government self righteously announces that it will not assist less-well-off potential homeowners but will listen to property developers anxious to secure cheaper land for development.

As low-income parents battle to find places for children in overcrowded schools with limited resources, the government outlines plans for more schools and universities for the better off - and so it goes on.

Government policy is poorly received and is presented with an arrogance that underlines its inadequacy. When it comes to anything where the heavy shadow of Beijing prevails, such as representative government, paralysis kicks in as officials attempt to second-guess their masters in the North.

This, then, is the atmosphere in which the worst things being said about the chief executive are given the benefit of the doubt. And it is in these circumstances that Tsang digs himself deeper into the hole as he refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of critics. He instead turns increasingly inward to his circle of cronies and those whom he fears have the ear of the bosses in Beijing and who might badmouth him at any time.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur