Obedience training in action

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am

How did Woof Woof the dog manage to tie up at least half a dozen government officials, generate an impressive clutch of signed and countersigned reports, as well as accompanying photographs, photocopies and telecoms traffic?

Well, Woof Woof (names have been changed to protect the vulnerable) is alleged to have bitten Dopey the dog. This is not the first recorded instance in canine history of dog biting dog. Indeed some experts would classify this incident as 'commonplace' and possibly 'hardly worth getting excited about'.

However, these experts appear to be absent from the corridors of Hong Kong's labyrinthine bureaucracy. Although the names have been changed, this Kafkaesque tale is lamentably a true story and it's ongoing. Moreover, it is typical rather than an aberration.

What happened was that Dopey's owner called the police to report this astonishing incident and a bevy of officers arrived to investigate. With some assistance, they were able to identify a small wound. At this point, you may have thought they would have urged Dopey's owner to calm down. But no, Woof Woof's owner was summoned to rush back home from a meeting some miles away and, when he declined to do so, a chief inspector was mobilised to summon him. Eventually the officer was persuaded that this was hardly a life-and-death matter and might be better resolved by applying some common sense.

However, common sense was on leave in the bureaucratic arena and so the 'case' was passed to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department which mobilised impressively, sending out investigators to interview all parties, taking pictures and goodness knows what else. The matter was then passed to yet another department, which is currently sifting through the pile of paperwork that this little bite has generated.

Is there a point to this story, aside from the obvious one about herculean time-wasting? Actually there is, because this microcosm of nonsense exemplifies how Hong Kong's bloated bureaucracy works. Minor officials are given practically no discretion and know that if they are to climb the bureaucratic tree they need to stick rigidly to the rules and leave a long paper trail to prove they have done so.

Further up the tree are senior officials who are supposed to use their initiative but see this as a dangerous concept, preferring to stick to procedures even if they understand how flawed they are.

It should be noted that, in this incident, most of the officials involved seemed rather embarrassed and defensive about their work, and at least two of them uttered the famous cry of bureaucrats throughout the world: 'I'm only doing my job'.

That job in Hong Kong is born of a colonial bureaucratic system devised - to put it bluntly - to keep 'the natives' under control. The rigid rules were also designed to minimise the chances of corruption (but it often turned out otherwise, as the proliferation of permits proved to be a breeding ground for graft).

At ground level, the bureaucracy was mainly implemented by locals who were supposed to follow orders to the letter and not be distracted by thinking. So a pattern of unthinking obedience developed. Fortunately for the colonialists in Hong Kong, their system was not at all dissimilar to the 'tremble and obey' ethos of imperial China, where a mighty bureaucracy followed strict rules. We are no longer in colonial Hong Kong or imperial China, and yet we still have a system that resembles the time when sweaty white chaps with long shorts ruled.

Sure, there has been lots of chatter about civil service reform and the word 'streamlining' is frequently employed, but the essential ethos of the service has barely changed.

And who seriously expects change will come in a system where the bureaucrats run both the bureaucracy and the political arm of government? Moreover, this unsatisfactory lack of division of powers is seared into Hong Kong's Basic Law to preserve this dysfunctional arrangement in aspic.

Mind you, few of those at the top of the tree even acknowledge that a state of dysfunction prevails. On the contrary, they argue that the system works perfectly well and is notably lacking in corruption. To some extent these assertions are valid, and most citizens interact with bureaucrats only occasionally and are resigned to the inconvenience caused. However, someone like me who runs catering establishments is bothered by a ravenous pack of bureaucrats more or less constantly, and they are hard to placate.

Ultimately, the great bureaucratic defence is always that things could get worse if changes were introduced. This is a weak defence at the best of times, and can hardly be acceptable in a place that is so self-conscious about its modernity while clinging onto a Victorian relic of a government system, albeit one employing new names.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur