• Sun
  • Dec 28, 2014
  • Updated: 4:53pm
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 3:43am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 3:43am

Hong Kong's professions must not be protectors of their own privilege

Philip Bowring says leaders of the professional classes ought to be safeguarding standards - rather than protecting their own interests, as some in Hong Kong seem to


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

Hong Kong people are familiar enough with the power as well as wealth of the city's landed aristocracy. Less obvious is the privileged position of leaders of some of the so-called "learned professions" - lawyers, accountants, doctors and the like.

Like guilds in medieval Europe that were created to enforce standards of workmanship and training on craftsmen such as weavers and goldsmiths, they have become over time as interested in protecting themselves from competition and keeping out new ideas as in looking after their clients. The Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants cannot be accused of overly restricting membership or imposing unreasonable entry requirements. But, not for the first time, its willingness to take prompt action in cases involving prominent members accused of misconduct is in question.

On December 24, it finally announced a decision in the case of Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, until recently chairman of the Hospital Authority and previously chairman of auditing giant Ernst & Young, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and the government-allied think-tank the Bauhinia Foundation - among a myriad other posts.

Wu was found guilty of professional misconduct relating to his involvement in New China Hong Kong Group, which collapsed in 1999. It then took 14 years for the institute to investigate and finally come to a decision on what, on the face of things, was not a very complicated case. It did so only after Wu had stepped down in November from the Hospital Authority and announced it on a day which ensured minimal media coverage. Wu received his top appointments despite the cloud hanging over his professional integrity.

It is better in principle that professional bodies police themselves rather than having governments impose themselves. But the Wu case leaves one asking whether anything has improved since the then Society of Accountants failed to act against Price Waterhouse in the case of the Carrian Group collapse. Price Waterhouse was Carrian's auditor and its senior partner became managing director of Carrian.

Another accountant long showered with official appointments has also recently been in the news - Marvin Cheung Kin-tung. A former chairman of auditors KPMG and of the Society of Accountants (the previous name of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants), he is currently chairman of the Airport Authority, a member of several boards including HSBC and Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing, and a former Executive Council member.

Cheung is rightly engaged in the debate over the third runway - though one might feel that coming from the private sector he would expect it to be funded commercially rather than from the public trough. But it was surprising to see someone in such a position with a public body make a big media splash defending the inordinate land lease privileges of the Hong Kong Golf Club.

For sure, as president of that club, he wants those privileges maintained. But his dual roles are another classic example of how some private-sector leaders have become installed deep inside government and can influence public affairs for private advantage. His comments on golf have also drawn attention to the existence of a private course on Airport Authority land, the little-known nine-hole course close to Terminal 2.

The elite golfers who cling to the claim that Hong Kong needs three courses at Fanling and spurn alternatives such as on Kau Sai Chau might get some sympathy if they ever used their position in or near government to spend real money on public sporting facilities, particularly for schools. The abysmal standards of fitness of young people, as revealed by recent surveys, is as much due to the lack of facilities as parental obsession with book learning and fears that sport leads to injuries. Public needs are not met by building a showpiece stadium.

Now we are told not to exercise as the air is too foul. Endless government expressions of worry about the costs of health care are nothing but hypocrisy until it invests in the prevention of disease - starting with clean air and opportunities for physical activity.

Another contribution to public health - and one with no cost at all - would be to take on the doctors' lobby and allow foreign-trained doctors (and nurses) to practise here.

As revealed this past week, mortality rates in several public hospitals are far higher than they should be in a city with Hong Kong's wealth and technical abilities. Shortages of beds, particularly in intensive care units, is one reason but staff shortages are even more to blame. Yet Hong Kong's political system, which enshrines every principle of vested interest, ensures that it cannot easily benefit from foreign-trained doctors.

High-quality professional service is a major part of Hong Kong's appeal. But it will not be sustained in the longer run if the professions are protectors of privilege rather than standards, and their prominent members are seen as part of the small group of mutual back-scratchers who turn up on every major private-sector board and government statutory and advisory body. The corporate state is the antithesis of Hong Kong's spirit of entrepreneurship and social mobility - and of independent professions.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

There is enough material here for several columns...just who gets to use the 'private' golf course on Airport Authority land?
John Adams
Yes - that's a question which Marvin Cheung and the airport authority need to answer !
I have lived in HK so long that I am not easily shocked by cronyism but that is something that took my breath away.
Contrast that dirty, selfish little scandal with a prominent news item in today's Sunday SCMP :
"Big Issue founder John Bird says Hong Kong poor need welfare springboard
UK magazine entrepreneur says welfare system that is springboard not safety net, with better education, can help city’s people escape poverty".
When the golfing lobby starts to care about HK's poor and needy instead of their tiny balls I will maybe have a little sympathy with them. In the meantime if they need early morning exercise let them use HK's public and country parks . All 100% free, as well as open to the public. It seems I'm almost the only early morning walker in those places these days.
Not only professionals, but government’s leadership positions too. They are taken up by mostly locally educated from a christened-named school (college) and graduated from Hong Kong University. It is a very much a colonial tradition that has persisted. Such small circle interaction sourcing from one highest learning institute entraps the leadership players into a mutual back-scratching culture.
The protectionism of the professionals is the side-effect of that small circle which as much for self-preservation and equally important to preserve the leadership position of Hong Kong University which provides the needed credentials.
The bias way in running Hong Kong where law and policy are made by the self-interests, it would be dishonest for Hong Kong to claim its rule of law. It would be foolish to believe it is so.
Can SCMP revive its role again and take up the issues mentioned by Bowring? Bravo, Bowring.
They warrant thorough, well researched, feature articles with statistics to show how the Govt has failed Hongkongers since 1997 where these issues are concerned. Do a feature on the HK born, UK trained young doctor along with his 200 members who were denied a chance to work in their home city. Besides aggravating the already short supply of medical professionals, this self imposed brain drain driven by selfish, protectionist interests is more terrible than the racist ones practised elsewhere, a phenomena unknown in the colonial days. Left unchecked, this would spread to every profession, as evident in the hostile reaction to the new HKU VC's appointment.
This city is doomed if it continues to be dominated by the likes of Wu and Cheung et al, the Med Council, HKU sycophant professors, etc.
Good luck to the new VC, you still have the support of many others like us.
All agreed. I fly over that golf course frequently and have always wondered what the hell it's doing there and why nobody seems to be using it (to be fair, it's even harder to see those tiny, tiny balls from altitude).
clean up the mess before the society becomes unliveable.
I believe you meant “their tiny white golf balls” but I could be wrong.
Could Mr.Bowring kindly clarify his statement "the mortality of several public hospitals are higher than they should be"?
The statistics from the Hospital Authority actually showed the mortality of operations in HONG KONG and the life expectancy of the city is among the best in the world, over ranking the USA.
Pls see here the google image of Cheung's private enclave:
John Adams, you should leave Hong Kong if you don't like it here, nobody is forcing you to stay.


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