C.Y. Leung's political grandstanding amid tragedy

Albert Cheng says Leung's hospital visit and appearance next to a mainland official detract from the good work of search and rescue teams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 7:51am

Although a commission of inquiry is to investigate the causes of the Lamma ferry disaster in which at least 38 people died and scores were injured, police have so far arrested seven crew members, including the two captains. We may see more arrests as the facts begin to emerge.

From the information available so far, it appears that the accident might have been caused by negligence, while maritime regulations could also have been breached.

And while we can't comment further on the tragedy at this stage, it is necessary to scrutinise closely the way the chief executive and his government responded to the disaster.

The accident took place at 8.23pm on Monday and the owner of the Hongkong Electric boat immediately alerted all relevant departments. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his senior officials would have been informed of it not long afterwards.

In fact, from an interview given by marine director Francis Liu Hon-por and Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man, it's clear that the fire services, marine police and officers from the marine department arrived at the scene before 9pm to conduct search and rescue efforts. Almost 1,000 people were involved in the rescue operation by that time. Within a short period, more than 100 people were pulled out of the water, with some certified dead at the scene and scores rushed to hospital.

Ko said he was informed of the tragedy at around 9pm and immediately activated the emergency response system and diverted the injured to five different hospitals. Liu was evasive when questioned about whether it had occurred to him to alert the Guangdong authorities to help with the rescue operation, as facilitated by existing cross-border arrangements.

All the relevant local departments - the fire service, marine department, police and our hospital services - have shown their professionalism in dealing with the disaster. They did their best to minimise the number of casualties but, unfortunately, the Hongkong Electric boat sank very quickly, within minutes.

After Leung visited the injured at 11pm on the night of the disaster, he gave the impression that he had directed the search and rescue operation and requested assistance from the Guangdong authorities. And, as a result, things had gone as efficiently as possible.

Yet, Leung got it all wrong; his behaviour was not appropriate for the chief executive of Hong Kong. By going to the hospital to speak to reporters, he gave the impression that it was all a show. His presence there contributed nothing except possibly causing inconvenience to hospital staff who were trying to deal with an emergency.

And the presence of Li Gang, the deputy head of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, was totally inappropriate. With Li alongside Leung, addressing the media, it looked like the former was in charge of the rescue operation. The picture was clear: forget about "one country, two systems", or "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong". No doubt the public will perceive Leung to be Beijing's political puppet.

Most notably, Leung was careless about the professionalism our government departments have displayed. He effectively took away the credit from those who deserved it.

From what we have learned so far, Leung must have had a good grasp of the situation at about 9pm. It's understandable why he decided not to cancel the fireworks display; it would have caused more chaos. But he should have rushed to the scene of the disaster as soon as possible. Going to the hospital and appearing together with Li was purely grandstanding to gain political points. And taking credit for being the one who requested assistance from Guangdong was totally unnecessary - the system is already in place.

It is disturbing to think that Leung's actions could have been motivated by political considerations more than anything else. It also seems that the date of the start of the three days of official mourning in Hong Kong was set in order to avoid interfering with the official National Day celebration from October 1-3.

To the people of Hong Kong, Leung appears uncaring of the well-being of society. To his boss in Beijing, he will further drive a wedge between Hong Kong and the mainland and deepen distrust and discontent.

He has been in office for only three months and has already created so much political debris. He should resign to avoid causing further damage to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Leung can take a leaf out of Li Ka-shing's book. Li and his family, as owners of Hongkong Electric, acted compassionately by offering financial and all-around assistance to the victims' families immediately after the accident. That's the kind of compassion we want to nurture in Hong Kong, not political grandstanding.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk