Rewarding the in-crowd
A funny little ceremony was held last weekend at Government House, during which the chief executive gave his closest associates some shiny medals and then dished out an array of lesser baubles to a variety of civil servants and government trustees. Most people were blissfully unaware that this was going on and it would not matter, were it not for the fact that these awards are meant to recognise outstanding citizens for their services to Hong Kong.
As ever, the administration believes that the concept of service to Hong Kong is synonymous with service to the government, and in particular to the chief executive. Thus, in the current round of bauble distribution, the very highest honours were largely reserved for people closest to the Big Boss. Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, for example, was among the recipients of the Grand Bauhinia Medal. He is arguably the official closest to Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and the poor old bureaucrats who had to justify this award were clearly struggling to find a plausible reason, finally resorting to the most anodyne of citations, stating that he had 'assisted the chief executive in overseeing and implementing long-term strategies for the sustainable development of the local economy'.
Awards were also dished out to two Executive Council members, Ronald Arculli and Leong Che-hung, who, like John Tsang, are perfectly respectable individuals but mainly notable for their service to the Big Boss, as is Victor Fung Kwok-king, the government's man for all committees.
In these award ceremonies, a special place is always reserved for the tycoon class. This year, Stanley Ho Hung-sun, a generous donor to Donald Tsang's election campaign fund, was given the top honour and lauded for 'his outstanding contribution to charity and community service'. This template description was also applied to fellow tycoon Tin Ka-ping 'for his significant contribution to charity and community service'. The only top award recipient who has done anything really significant to achieve recognition outside service to the government was the Nobel laureate Charles Kao Kuen, the 'father of fibre optics'.
As ever, and much more understandably, awards were posthumously given to government employees, such as firemen, who died in the line of duty. However, the overwhelming bulk of these baubles were dished out to civil servants and government-appointed committee members whose principal achievement appears to have been to have done their job.
Doing your job outside the government service rarely attracts any form of official recognition, unless you are a member of the tycoon class who receive plaudits for giving money to charity. But, even here, questions need to be asked. If a lowly paid worker gives, say, a modest HK$200 a year to charity, amounting to the equivalent of the remuneration for a day's work, is he making a lesser sacrifice than a tycoon who dishes out a few hundred thousand dollars, representing a mere blink of the eye in terms of the remuneration he receives?
In this year's list, three people from the media industry, the industry I know best, were honoured. A lesser but nonetheless timely award was given to the film director John Woo Yu-sum, who has achieved well-deserved international recognition for his work. But he ranked lower than Albert Cheng King-hon, who, among other things, is a columnist for this newspaper, but in the award stakes is better known for his closeness to the chief executive and the help he provided during his election campaign.
Then there is Liu Changle, the boss of Phoenix Satellite Television. He was honoured for transforming the company into 'a multinational media enterprise providing global viewers with one of the best sources of international news in Chinese'. Not mentioned is that this is the only newish international media group in Hong Kong which enjoys support from Beijing. The founder of the only other local media company which has recently expanded overseas in a dramatic way is Next Media, headed by the democratically minded Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who is as likely to get one of these awards as the prospects of a tropical winter in Beijing.
What is the difference between the two men? Simple, one has Beijing's seal of approval, the other does not. And here's the rub: these awards are entirely confined to those who are considered to be politically onside or at the very least are not actively offside. Thus in Hong Kong, where freedom of speech prevails, there can be no recognition for forthright government critics.
In this respect, the current award system largely mirrors the colonial system it replaced. It is a dismal reflection of the new regime that it chooses to ape the most distasteful aspects of the departed colonialists.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur