Donald Tsang

Root of the problem

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am

What am I doing writing about trees when the air is thick with political suspense? Shouldn't I be writing about Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's embarrassing loss in last Thursday's televised debate with Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and why on earth he offered to do it? Or what surprises await us at this week's Legislative Council vote on the government's political reform proposals? But I'm going to write about trees. They have their place in politics.

Supposing a dozen trees suddenly came crashing down, killing a dozen people. An elected government careless about tree safety would surely face the fury of voters. Two falling trees have killed two Hongkongers in the past two years but, even if another eight came crashing down, killing eight more, our unelected government would still be secure. It cannot be voted out.

That, I am constantly told, is why pro-democracy legislators won't compromise in demanding genuine democracy. They believe only real democracy can guarantee accountable government. And only leaders accountable to the people will feel the heat to take good governance seriously.

I'm not sure if democracy would have saved a young university student killed by a falling tree in Stanley two years ago. But I do believe that, if ours was an elected government, Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen would have been more diligent as the official tasked with tree safety after that tragedy. That diligence may have saved the cyclist killed by a falling tree last week. But Tang faced no consequences, not a rebuke nor a reprimand by his boss - even though the second death happened on his watch.

If we had an elected government, Tang would probably also have taken more seriously the poverty commission which he chaired some years back. The commission has ended its work but the wealth gap continues to widen. Tang doesn't have to justify the government time and money spent on something that produced nothing.

But there's another tree I want to talk about. I grew up with this tree. It was just behind the old home, long demolished, where I spent my childhood. It once grew freely on a little hill which housed a treasured Hong Kong heritage site - the old Tsim Sha Tsui marine police headquarters.

Instead of preserving this landmark for the people, our government sold it to the highest bidder who turned it into a hotel and mall for the rich. To make way for this, scores of trees were felled and the hill itself levelled. The old banyan I grew up with was spared but encased in a concrete shell where it can no longer grow freely. It is suffocating to death.

Would an elected government have been so insensitive as to put profit before the people by selling off one of our few remaining historical treasures? I think not. It's not just trees; it's everything. Profit before people is what guides our officials when making policy. They see nothing immoral about it.

Why else do you think there are no laws against property developers using trickery to drive up home prices in the way Henderson Land did with its Conduit Road luxury block? It claimed some flats had sold for record prices, which turned out to be untrue.

And why do you think the government allowed the Urban Renewal Authority to make billions in profits by forcing out tenants from old buildings which were then turned into luxury homes for the rich?

You often hear our officials talk up Hong Kong as a wine hub. That helps collectors, auction houses and wine sellers make money. But how often do you hear them talking about fixing the widening wealth gap?

Advocates of democracy exaggerate when they say it will cure Hong Kong's ills. Even the world's fiercest democracies are not without social and financial problems. But supposing we had an oil spill like the one in the US. Would an unelected leader like Donald Tsang fear a public backlash enough to force huge damage payouts from BP, as President Barack Obama has just done?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster