Underground world of wealth and impunity revealed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2012, 12:00am


Decent people know they have to clear up their own mess. They also know that only the lowest of the low will blame members of their own family for messes for which they are responsible. Yet the man who aspires to lead Hong Kong seems quite oblivious of this commonly accepted form of decency.

Chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen inhabits a different world from the rest of us and he has inadvertently provided insights into how this exclusive universe operates.

In this world, members of the elite suspected of breaking the law can order their servants to send away law enforcers; they can also employ special agents to deal with the authorities so they don't have to bother; and, when pushed to explain why these breaches of the law have occurred, they can blithely say they will answer in their own good time.

Tang has been lifting the lid on this charmed existence as news emerges about how he is handling the discovery of a massive illegal structure in his home. As he does so, bewildered citizens scratch their heads wondering how someone running for the most senior government job in Hong Kong is able to slip and slide around the law.

The suspicion lingers that Tang is not alone in this world of special rules which seem to have been reserved for the use of the rich and powerful. Ordinary people, unlike Tang, do not buy their houses through companies registered in offshore tax havens.

Can you imagine an ordinary person feeling sufficiently confident to use a servant to block the entry to their home by Buildings Department inspectors carrying out their duties? Moreover, can you imagine that the inspectors would be prepared to meekly walk away?

Yes, it's a different world inhabited by Tang in which minions are left to clean up the mess. But this is how it goes for someone brought up in considerable wealth, whose path to the top has been eased by powerful family connections and who possesses a range of other advantages confined to members of the same elite that propelled Tung Chee-hwa to the top government job.

Surely memories cannot be so short that the hapless tenure of Tung has been forgotten? His privileged background is remarkably similar to that of Tang and his family connections to Beijing seem to be of the same order.

Have the kingmakers in Beijing forgotten why they ultimately forced him to go? Do they not recall that this privileged scion of a shipping empire treated the government machine as members of his staff, rarely delegating decisions? Has it been forgotten that Tung's detachment from the experience of most Hong Kong people led him to retreat from the public and thus acquire a reputation of remoteness? It was not that Tung was a fundamentally bad person, any more than Tang can be derided for being bad; it was a matter of simple inability to connect with the people.

This is not some kind of sweeping assertion that the rich and privileged are inherently incapable of governing modern societies, because this is clearly not the case. Two of the most successful wartime leaders: Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill came from notably patrician backgrounds. Nelson Mandela is the son of a princely family, as was Malaysia's charismatic first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

The difference is that all these patrician leaders were moulded in a hard school, where power was not handed to them on a plate but had to be fought for in real elections, and they ultimately succeeded only because of their own efforts.

What is both bizarre and offensive in Hong Kong is that the leaders of the Communist Party in Beijing seem to think that the only way to secure stability and the preservation of the status quo is to draw leaders from the ranks of the privileged elite. This logic is sound in assuming that those who benefit most from the status quo are unlikely to challenge it. But it is unsound to believe that the sons of this elite have the capability or even the first idea of how to run a sophisticated society, full of people who have achieved success by their own efforts, not by accident of birth.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur