No plot afoot

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am

The rapidly widening wealth gap in Hong Kong has raised many questions that touch on the city's economic and social policy. At present, about 1.2 million people, or nearly 20 per cent of Hong Kong's population, are thought to be living below the poverty line.

It is not hard to understand why the rich-poor divide is fuelling hatred towards the rich, especially big businesses.

Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing, recently drew controversy over his plan to redevelop his home at 79 Deep Water Bay. The Buildings Department has been accused of giving preferential treatment and allowing the building to be enlarged by 9,165 sq ft, doubling its area to some 18,000 sq ft.

Furthermore, the administration is said to have leased government land to Li to build a 40-metre private road leading to his house, and a vacant site adjacent to his home for him to build a 10,000 sq ft garden with club amenities. All these were said to have been granted at very low rates and without going through proper tendering procedures. The tenancy agreements are believed to be short-term, but will be renewed automatically.

The news immediately sparked criticism of government-business collusion. This kind of public reaction has become a kind of contagious behaviour that attacks the core of our society. The government needs to respond by punishing any official who may have breached the rules. If the accusations are false, the officials in charge must clarify and defend the government. Not responding will only give the impression that the government has done something wrong.

In fact, many surveyors believe Li was not given any preferential treatment. They say there are many cases in Hong Kong where plots of land are leased to private landlords on short-term, renewable tenancy for them to build private gardens, roads and other related amenities. This practice has existed for decades and it's most common in the New Territories, where many owners of village houses have benefited from it.

The practice has been to grant most of these sites without tendering. The reason is that since they are connected to existing properties, and only the owners have access to them, officials think an open bid will not attract interest from others.

If the people think this practice is unfair, they should blame the policy; it has nothing to do with government-business collusion.

It was all a misunderstanding. If the government had come out to clarify that it had followed general policy, and that there have been many similar cases in Hong Kong, the uproar could have been avoided.

The government is at fault; it lacks the courage and foresight to deal with controversies. One government official who should be held accountable is Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who oversees the buildings and lands departments. If any policy is deemed unfair or outdated, it falls within the ambit of her responsibility to review and amend it. And if a long-time policy proves to still be effective, she should defend it.

Lam's refusal to be drawn into the controversy is puzzling and disturbing. This is not the way an accountable official should behave. If she thinks that by keeping a distance from this controversy she will protect her integrity, she is wrong; her job is to defend the government and its integrity, not her own. What she is doing gives the impression that she is trying to save her own neck.

The father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, famously said: 'Politics is the management of people's affairs.' The Chinese term for 'politics' directly refers to governance, which of course means the management of many aspects of government such as national affairs, policies, and law and order.

A responsible government should always respect public opinion, understand the sentiments of the people and have the courage to admit its faults and make amends. The last thing we want to see is this little storm in a teacup blowing out of proportion, which may trigger further disunity and instability in society - just because one official shirked her responsibility.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator