For some, the rules don't apply
The implicit corruption of the Hong Kong political system has been on full display in recent weeks at various levels of importance. It had seemed encouraging that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who holds the difficult but crucial development portfolio, was seeing more backbone than her senior colleagues in seeking to bring law and order to land and building issues in the New Territories.
Heung Yee Kuk boss Lau Wong-fat's boys showed their true colours with their huge, threatening demonstration against her. One hundred years after the 1911 revolution, they sought to perpetuate the last vestige of feudalism in China through a so-called village house policy. This is not an ancestral right but a colonial response to kuk demands introduced in 1972. It has since made the so-called villagers into a large class of rentiers now apparently also immune from the law.
Lam seemed not to be impressed by kuk threats. But this is at best a lone stand by her that is destined to fail because, already, Henry Tang Ying-yen, who as chief secretary for years was ultimately responsible for the failure to enforce laws and planning regulations, has already been out bidding for the 28 votes of the kuk in the 'rotten borough' chief executive election. He suggested the small-house policy might be extended, allowing such houses to rise to six or nine storeys, rather than the three now allowed but frequently exceeded without penalty. Failure to enforce important laws against influential people is just the sort of governance failure common to third-world countries and an issue where Hong Kong is supposed to set an example to the mainland.
Hopes of any improvement have drained away. The kuk urged its members to use appeals and other delaying tactics to avert law enforcement, looking to the future when a new chief executive would be in place and Lam moved to another portfolio. But even that soon became unnecessary when Lam's bureau itself came up with a policy paper designed to avoid doing anything serious for years to come. Using classic delaying tactics, the bureau, which is supposed to be responsible for this issue, now insists that its staff are not competent and so it must recruit a professional officer to formulate and then oversee implementation plans. And, first, it must get funding approval from the Legislative Council! So now we are told to look at a 10-year time horizon for enforcing the law on Lau's voters.
The whole situations stinks and calls out for the Independent Commission Against Corruption to take over where the Ombudsman's damning April report left off. The same principles that make real estate, utilities and public works the most corruption-prone, according to Transparency International, apply as much in Hong Kong as, say, Indonesia.
In the case of the failure to implement fire and building regulations in the older and most crowded parts of Hong Kong, the situation is more complicated. But it seems bureaucrats only bestir themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as the recent fire in Mong Kok or last year's building collapse in Hung Hom.
Individuals may be free to choose to live in cramped, unhygienic or dangerous conditions. For sure, in some countries, the nanny state goes too far in trying to protect individuals against their own decisions.
But the government is not at liberty to decline to enforce rules aimed at public safety. There are some instances where well-placed firms appear to be beneficiaries of these selective enforcement policies. But, more generally, they are the result of government attempts to cover up its own failures in land and housing policies, following its abandonment of the social housing that is still badly needed in urban areas.
Another, less important but even more revealing level of law enforcement failure relates to car parking. If in, say, Manila, illegally parked cars were causing traffic disruption along key roads on a daily basis, one would assume that traffic policemen were being paid to turn a blind eye.
In Hong Kong, such petty police corruption is rare. The orders not to enforce stopping and parking rules come from much higher up, from the political level, and are often aimed at making life easy for important people who cannot walk a few blocks to their car or wait for the driver to arrive from a nearby car park.
Once a few posh cars get away with it, other citizens take advantage and police and traffic wardens are not going to expose themselves to corruption allegations by ticketing one car and not another.
The same officials who give immunity to limousine owners to cause traffic chaos routinely order the confiscation of bicycles harmlessly parked near outlying island ferry terminals and New Territories stations. What more evidence of sleaze do you need?
For sure, flexible law enforcement is desirable when no harm is being done. But creating daily traffic disruption to please a few self-important people, or politically influential ones, is the behaviour one expects from places governed in the interests of an elite, not those of the public.
It is a consequence both of the political system and of the self- satisfied top bureaucrats who not only administer it but increasingly are in open alliance with its narrowest interests. A direct line runs from the kuk protest to the fire and the traffic jams in Central - it passes through Tamar.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator