Hong Kong's reputation suffers as rules of fair play are ignored

Stephen Vines says growing scandals reveal a government in crisis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 May, 2013, 8:10am

Things are coming together, but not in a good way. It seems that hardly a day passes without the integrity of some senior government official being questioned and, worse, the system of government being undermined. Taken separately, these things are bad enough but, when considered as a whole, the picture is very disturbing.

Most recently a stab wound was delivered to the very heart of Hong Kong's main finance industry regulator, the Securities and Futures Commission, which stands accused of giving preferential treatment to Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, a member of the Executive Council and one of the closest allies of the chief executive. It appears the SFC allowed Cheung's Hong Kong Mercantile Exchange to continue trading even after it had become clear that it lacked sufficient revenue to cover its operating expenses. Criminal investigations have now begun into the company's operations.

The perception that the Hong Kong government is not clean is, to put it mildly, rather widespread

Then there was the decision to scrap the weekly meeting of Exco on the grounds that there was nothing to discuss, grounds that look rather thin when the government keeps telling legislators that there is a backlog of pressing business to attend to.

Meanwhile, at the front line of Hong Kong's efforts to fight graft, the Independent Commission Against Corruption will investigate its own practices in the wake of the scandal engulfing its former director Timothy Tong Hin-ming. There could not have been a clearer case for an independent inquiry; instead, the ICAC will be tarnished by the suspicion it is looking after its own rather than safeguarding the public interest.

And we still don't know whether another Exco member, Franklin Lam Fan-keung, is guilty of using his position in the council for personal gain.

At least the courts seem to be rising above this malaise, despite constant sniping from the more assiduous Beijing shoe-shiners who demand that their autonomy should be curbed.

They are now dealing with criminal cases involving a former chief secretary and a short-lived development secretary who is facing fraud charges. Another former chief secretary, Henry Tang Ying-yen, has "bravely" allowed his wife to carry the can in court for the construction of an illegal basement (illegal structures at the home of the current chief executive are also out there in the bureaucratic labyrinth). And then there is the seemingly stalled investigation over alleged receipt of advantages by the last chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

The perception that the Hong Kong government is not clean is, to put it mildly, rather widespread. None of these cases has been proven and the accusations would matter less if senior officials showed vigilance in support of the institutions that preserve Hong Kong's good name and cement the special administrative region's reputation as a place where business can be conducted according to the best standards.

However, we are now seeing the undermining of the ICAC, one of the most effective anti-corruption bodies in the world, by an administration that simply does not understand that the perception of fair play is every bit as important as its practice.

Combine this with the cavalier attitude displayed by an administration that seems to want the judiciary to serve as its handmaiden rather than as a bulwark of the rule of law, with officials enthusiastically referring decisions of the most senior court to Beijing for "interpretation".

Things are even more complicated in the legislature, where irresponsible use of the filibuster by a few members has led the council's president to arbitrarily curb the already limited powers of the chamber.

All of this combines to create the impression that the rules are made to suit those in power and that the safeguards that have made Hong Kong strong can be tossed aside. This is not a storm in a teacup; it is a gathering storm with gale-force winds.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur