Amid a public outcry over the Timothy Tong Hin-ming affair, the chief executive has finally decided to take action. But instead of an independent inquiry into Tong's lavish banquets, gifts and business trips, the top leader only ordered a review of regulations and compliance during Tong's five-year stint at the helm of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The decision clearly does not go far enough.
Tong spent at least HK$268,0000 on gifts, the majority of which went to mainland officials. He is also said to have enjoyed wining and dining with officials from the central government's liaison office, raising concerns over the watchdog's independence. The commission has yet to give a full account of the meals. But judging by the evidence available so far, Tong did not seem to have adhered to the standards expected of someone in charge of fighting bribery and corruption. That he was subsequently given a seat on the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a mainland political advisory body, has prompted more questions.
Meanwhile, Tong continues to dodge media inquiries. Only yesterday did he issue a statement, saying he would co-operate with the probe as necessary upon legal advice. In an open society, where transparency and accountability are fundamental to governance, staying silent is hardly an option. He should give a public account as soon as possible.
On Tuesday, Leung broke his silence over the debacle, saying he would decide how to handle the matter in a serious and comprehensive way later if needed. The top leader may not want to be dragged into a controversy that happened before he took office. But, constitutionally, the commissioner is accountable to the chief executive. That a review was ordered underlines the severity of the problem. Regrettably, the decision still falls short of public expectations. At stake is not just Tong's integrity. The commission's credibility may be dealt a heavy blow if the case is not seen to be handled properly.
The difference between an inquiry and an overhaul is clear enough. The review committee has no real investigative power. Although it is still expected to touch on Tong's spending when reviewing rules and compliance, it remains unclear how much light it can shed. The decision against an inquiry also fuels speculation that the liaison office could be spared from questioning. Nothing short of an independent inquiry can restore confidence in the commission.