Hong Kong officials demonstrate how not to lead
Philip Bowring says our officials appear to be writing the book on poor governance with their displays of arrogance, poor judgment, self-protection, inertia and plain folly
At first glance, the story of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's attempt to visit the pope might seem just a bizarre anecdote about a bureaucrat turned none-too-successful political leader. But, on closer examination, it betrays an attitude of mind which seems all too common in the upper echelons of a civil service born to believe in its right to govern yet also seldom capable of leadership.
Why else would Tsang imagine that should he, as a Catholic, wish to meet the church's leader, this entirely personal matter should be handled any way other than through personal church contacts? Could he really be so innocent of civil service regulations that he would ask such servants to intercede for him - and not with the Vatican authorities but with an Italian politician linked to Silvio Berlusconi?
Could he equally have been so ignorant of the limits of Hong Kong's autonomy in dealing with foreign countries as to attempt to deal with a sovereign state (the Vatican) through Hong Kong's trade representative in Brussels?
It seems status had gone to his head, obliterating his sense of propriety, whether dealing with the church or Shenzhen tycoons. But one should also ask why a civil servant - in this case Duncan Pescod in Brussels and presumably some others in Hong Kong - should have felt unable to point out that Tsang was making a fool of himself and, in any event, exceeding his authority.
Were they too afraid to speak up? Were they unaware that, in any constitutional system, one of the tasks of the top permanent administrative officers is to advise the chief executive (or prime minister) of procedures and the limits of their personal power? Tsang seems to have seen himself as unaccountable generally and the civil servants as more accountable to him personally than to society at large.
Note that we know of all this only thanks to court proceedings in Italy.
Self-protection seems to be built into an elite quasi-masonic structure. For another example, look at what has not happened since the Lamma ferry disaster a year ago. It took a judicial inquiry just six months to come up with a 270-page report following evidence from over 100 witnesses, some of whom found varying degrees of fault both with the captains and those involved in the construction, licensing and operation of the vessels. But the government's own inquiry has been held back by official inertia.
If this was genuinely out of a need to ensure that any prosecutions were not compromised by lack of proper procedure in obtaining evidence, it might be understandable. But as this column has noted before, it is suspected that this was an attempt to deter prosecutions other than of the captains. The captains were charged before the inquiry report was published, so its conclusion on their culpability was redacted. The others were not, which makes subsequent prosecution more difficult.
Inertia is a natural state for bureaucracies, as for humans generally. But it is disappointing to see how quickly it infects ministers from outside as well as inside its ranks. Much was expected, for example, of Environment Secretary Wong Kam-sing and his deputy Christine Loh Kung-wai, both individuals with track records in the field. Yet they, too, quickly fell into the trap of believing that things cannot be done without a "consensus".
"We have tried to balance the interests of all sectors and trades," Wong told a Legislative Council panel wanting to speed up implementation of a truck replacement programme. Why? Loh told the panel that the schedule was correct, "if you want to see a consensus among the industry and among legislators". But why should we want a consensus with a vested interest rather than action now to address a major public health problem?
Likewise, recently, a minister claimed that addressing the small house policy, the biggest single obstacle to providing adequate land for housing, was difficult and would take a long time. Why? The job of ministers and their top servants is to come up with solutions. These will necessarily upset some interests. That is what good government often requires. Legco may sometimes be a problem but all too often seeking a consensus is just a cover for cowardice.
Another absurd, even grotesque, so-called balancing act can be seen in the decision to raise domestic helpers' wages by just HK$90. This is supposed to balance the interests of employers with workers. But by what right is the gap between wages of these serfs and the households (presumably those with incomes above the median) to be deliberately widened? Helpers' wages have fallen well behind inflation while those of the top 30 per cent of household earners have risen significantly.
In effect, we are being told that more Hong Kong households have a right to a servant - this from an administration that claims to be addressing poverty, caused by income maldistribution. Which leads us back to the pope. Unlike the previous incumbent - and Tsang - Pope Francis seems genuinely concerned about income inequality. I am not suggesting Leung Chun-ying should ask Beijing to invite him here but maybe Tsang could show his respect by circulating Francis' comments on inequality to his former colleagues in the civil service.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator