Liaison Office chief must investigate relationship with former ICAC boss

Frank Ching says Zhang Xiaoming must hold an internal investigation into his office's relationship with former ICAC chief Timothy Tong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 2:53am

Few in Hong Kong probably have any recollection of Jiang Enzhu, the first head of the central government's liaison office, who left in 2002. Jiang was a career diplomat and remained tactfully quiet during his tenure in Hong Kong, letting his deputies do the talking.

This practice of the top person keeping his mouth shut was generally maintained during the tenure of Gao Siren and Peng Qinghua. Surely, people better remember Li Gang, the No 2, who acted as spokesman, than they do Peng.

When the current head, Zhang Xiaoming, arrived in December, he was welcomed for his fresh approach, which included a willingness to sound off in public on all manner of things. One reason for his willingness to do so, perhaps, is that 49-year-old Zhang is an expert on Hong Kong, having worked in the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office for most of his adult life.

Last month, however, he said something that he may well be regretting. Asked by a Cable TV reporter to comment on the saga of former ICAC commissioner Timothy Tong Hin-ming, who had entertained liaison office officials numerous times with public funds, Zhang responded that such behaviour was "very normal, very normal".

Subsequently, the liaison office said that "contacts" between it and the ICAC were normal and, in fact, the office maintained a working relationship with other Hong Kong governments as well.

The problem is that Zhang was not being asked about professional contacts between the ICAC and the liaison office. He was being asked about constant, lavish entertainment by Tong using public funds. If this is "very normal", is the behaviour of Tong's successor, Simon Peh Yun-lu, who has not given a single dinner for the liaison office since he assumed office almost 10 months ago, "abnormal"? Should wining and dining of liaison office officials be the norm where the government is concerned?

Of course, Zhang spoke before the ICAC announced it was conducting an investigation into Tong. But Zhang, who has a law degree, should have known better than to voice support for someone who faced allegations of lavishly entertaining mainland officials and giving them gifts while in public office.

In fact, Zhang's "very normal" comment came the day before the Legislative Council's public accounts committee decided to hold hearings on Tong.

Zhang should know the differences between Hong Kong and the mainland and not bring in its culture of gift-giving - it is his job to keep the two systems separate. The best way for the liaison office to salvage its reputation is to co-operate in all investigations, while Zhang should also conduct an internal inquiry. This all occurred before his arrival, but he cannot be seen as covering up for colleagues.

Presumably, the liaison office recommended that Tong be appointed to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference after he retired as commissioner. Who made that decision and why? Were any gifts exchanged? Since President Xi Jinping is emphasising clean government, the liaison office needs to do its part to fight corruption as well.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1