HK's grasping officials are only playing to type

Jason Wordie says the city is reverting to the time-dishonoured Chinese tradition of public venality

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 2:28am

According to an old Chinese saying, when a small man casts a long shadow, sunset is close by. The Hong Kong administration's tattered - some suggest shattered - reputation for probity in public life after chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's retirement makes this adage particularly pungent. A possible working holiday in the "Stanley Spa and Sauna" would have been the likely ultimate price tag for those private plane rides, yacht trips and "dinners with friends" for any other senior official except the chief executive, who was not - as we all now know - bound by the same rules of behaviour in that post that had governed the rest of his decades-long civil service career.

Tsang's personal grubbiness aside, this squalid episode illustrates a more fundamental top-level shift in the Hong Kong way of doing things. In a private conversation on the night of the 1997 handover, former chief secretary and ICAC commissioner Sir Jack Cater remarked, apropos of how long it would take for institutional rot to return to Hong Kong, that he "gave it 15 years …"

Fifteen years on, Rafael Hui Si-yan - one of Cater's successors in office -was charged with graft in public office, by the same body - the Independent Commission Against Corruption - that Cater had helped establish in the 1970s. And then there is the ongoing case of Hui's successor Henry Tang Ying-yen's illegally constructed subterranean playpen at his family home in Kowloon Tong; which he claimed not to know anything about, and for which his loyal, long-suffering wife accepts responsibility. When will anyone be charged over that one?

Numerous similar instances of appallingly poor personal judgment from further down the administrative food chain have recently been disgorged. No wonder, then, that the public mood towards local officialdom is increasingly bilious. But no one should be too surprised. The mainland has witnessed a public venality free-for-all in the past 15 years unprecedented - in absolute terms - in Chinese history; even the Kuomintang at its worst, towards the closing stages of the Chinese civil war in the 1940s, were not as grasping.

In traditional Chinese society, probity in public office was an ideal so seldom achieved that those rare examples of upright administrators and public-spirited mandarins who retired poor were venerated for centuries after their deaths, commemorated in operas and poems, and in some cases - such as the legendary judge Bao - even deified. In consequence, the default position of the average Chinese person towards officialdom was an expectation of venality. Luxurious meals and transport, sinecures for relatives, favourable deals to friends, friend of friends, random clansmen and so on were simply expected perks of office.

It remains much the same today. Why should Hong Kong - from the very beginning, a closely integrated, geographically contiguous part of China - be any different? We are part of China now. Officialdom here - as on the mainland - has simply reverted to a time-dishonoured historical type.

As any detailed study of local history makes clear, the place was perennially crooked; money always talked much louder than principle. Hong Kong was - and is - simply that kind of place, and from the beginning, it attracted those kinds of people. In terms of official venality, Hong Kong did get quantifiably worse after the late 1940s, with a massive population influx from the mainland. Police stations in the early 1950s displayed posters telling the public that they did not need to pay for service, by contrast to the land they had come from; examples can be seen in the Police Museum at the Peak. So is it any coincidence that as we are now witnessing an acculturation to the mainland way of doing things, similar in many ways to the early 1950s, a similar range of underlying fissures are resurfacing in society?

One can almost hear the red-faced ghosts of the old China hands muttering cynically over their evening whisky at the club that all this, 15 years after the handover, is "simply no surprise, old boy! No surprise at all!" What we see all around us now is just what inevitably happens within a Chinese administrative tradition. And, sadly, they are largely right.

A century and a half of British rule was - after all - an alien standard imposed on a very different culture. While lower-level corruption (police, public works and so on) was always commonplace in colonial times, top-level official venality was largely unknown.

So, perhaps, no one should be dismayed at what we are seeing all around us now. It's simply a reversion to type. As any experienced gardener can tell you, return the seed of a hybridised plant to its native soil and eventually the plant will revert to its original nature.

Like it or not - that is what we are seeing now in Hong Kong. And in the coming years, as the pace of mainland integration steadily gathers, we will only see more such examples. And this most fundamental change - not legions of parallel traders at Sheung Shui and other easily rectified nuisances - is the true price Hong Kong will pay for ever-closer integration.

Jason Wordie is a Hong Kong historian