Are these the qualities we want from our leaders?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 October, 2010, 12:00am

Down in the depths of political life, there are politicians who believe the rules don't apply to them, who blame their staff when things go wrong but take credit when things go well. Also lurking down there are politicians who feign shared experiences with the poor as a means of enhancing their credibility.

Lamentably, some of these politicians percolated to the surface in Hong Kong this week in the shape of Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and Lau Wong-fat, the rural communities' leader who sits on the Executive Council.

Tang might possibly be excused on the grounds of ignorance but this hardly serves as a qualification for assuming the number one job in the Hong Kong government.

Born with a golden spoon in his mouth and enjoying the kind of upbringing that most Hongkongers can only dream of, Tang claimed that he knew about hardship because he had experienced it by visiting relatives on the mainland during his school holidays.

Tang seems to think that a spot of poverty tourism is the same as the real thing.

Yet he knows full well that, as soon as he crossed back over the border, he was back in the world of large apartments, chauffeured cars and the boardroom of companies controlled by his father.

Tang seems to be vying for the title of Hong Kong's Marie Antoinette, the 18th-century French queen who built a little hamlet in the grounds of her palace so that she and her attendants could play at being milkmaids and shepherdesses, like the majority of her subjects who were peasants. Strangely, she seemed not to notice that they did not have a palace to retreat to after playing the game.

Tang is aware of his rich-kid image and is trying to dilute it. And he went further, no doubt with an eye to pleasing the old men in Beijing, by telling the world that he was a fan of The Thoughts of Chairman Mao.

He did not specify which of these thoughts attracts him; however, it's a fair bet that it was not the saying which reads, 'Our enemies are all those in league with imperialism - the warlords, the bureaucrats, the comprador class, the big landlord class and the reactionary section of the intelligentsia'.

Tang is neither a warlord nor an intellectual, but fits into the other three categories.

Meanwhile, Lau is reported to have failed to declare property transactions he was obliged to disclose as a member of the Executive Council. His first response was to blame 'staff oversight'; he clearly believes that being a leader does not mean taking responsibility. Lau has extensive property holdings and is a veteran politician, so he can hardly claim that he does not know the rules.

In other jurisdictions this would be a resignation issue, especially when it concerns property matters which are highly sensitive to government policy and relate to an asset of prime importance in Hong Kong. However, Lau shows no sign of hurrying to make good, instead he whines about being criticised while the government gives every impression of letting him get away with it.

At present, it seems that Lau's serious transgression of responsibility for transparency will go unpunished.

This matters because if, at the highest level of government, officials cannot be trusted to avoid conflicts of interest, then the credibility of the entire administration is at stake.

As for Tang, an amiable man who leads a charmed life, he seems to think that credibility can be achieved by feigning an affinity with the lives of ordinary people.

He simply cannot understand that few people object to his wealth, because Hong Kong is peculiarly free of class envy, but they do object to pretence and insults to their intelligence.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur