The politics of self-interest rules in Hong Kong

Philip Bowring says from the Lamma ferry case to the high-speed rail link and incinerator plans, officials have shown they act out of self-interest rather than for the public good

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 4:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 4:15am

Hong Kong has a problem with a dysfunctional political system. But a bigger obstacle to effective administration is the behaviour of the top ranks of an increasingly politicised bureaucracy.

Self-protection rules, often in conjunction with corporate money. The case of the Lamma ferry is truly shocking. There may be a (weak) case in law for not divulging the full contents of the government's inquiry into the October 1, 2012 tragedy. However, that this is nothing other than a cover-up is shown by reference back to the independent, judge-led inquiry published a year ago.

In this column on May 5, 2013, I wrote praising the thoroughness of that 268-page report, but added: "Misgivings arise from the fact that the conclusions relating to the coxswains of the two vessels have been redacted as the individuals have been charged [but] … none of the others concerned, some of whom can be identified in the report, and others who could be identified if the matter was pursued, have been prosecuted.

"Are we to assume that they now cannot be prosecuted because trials would be prejudiced by what is in this report? One has to begin to wonder whether anyone in the Marine Department, Hongkong Electric or those involved in the design, building and modification of Lamma IV will be prosecuted. Are they being enabled to hide behind departmental or corporate veils?"

Clearly they were. So now we have another report, this time from the very bureau responsible for the Marine Department, which has taken 18 months to prepare yet - unlike the earlier independent inquiry - mostly remains hidden from the public.

Now we are told the latter report's evidence relating to possible criminal prosecutions will be followed up by the police. But what have the police been doing to follow up on the conclusions of the first inquiry - that the 39 deaths were not only the result of navigational errors but of failure of the Lamma IV to conform to design, construction and safety standards? The only prosecution has been the derisory fine against Hongkong Electric for under-staffing its vessel.

The drawn-out government inquiry has been an excuse for the police, so quick to charge the coxswains, to do nothing about those responsible for the abysmal state of the Lamma IV.

And now the secretary for justice makes exaggerated claims about the legal problems of releasing the report - even with individual names redacted. Until shown otherwise, the policy appears to be to place all blame on the low-paid coxswains while officials and those at the corporate level escape blame.

This failure to serve the public's best interest is also evident in the fiasco of the MTR's high-speed rail project. The natural scapegoats for this appear to be the project head, who is retiring early, and the manager of the West Kowloon part of it, who is not renewing his contract. Both these people are foreigners, one Malaysian, one British. Both have extensive experience in rail tunnel projects. Were they really so ignorant as not to report realistically to their superiors? Or were they working from a script written by bureaucrats and approved by the Transport Bureau?

All along, the high-speed rail project has been driven by a mix of politics (getting closer to the mainland), bureaucratic interests (the engineers who want to justify their existence) and the corporations that would benefit if the railway was brought deep into the heart of Kowloon, close to their commercial and residential developments.

As a result, the price tag for a 26km-long railway, now HK$67 billion and almost certain to rise, is probably double what it need have been if the terminus had been in the New Territories. China has never thought it necessary to bring these projects to the heart of the city: the Beijing terminus is 8km from the city centre; Guangzhou's is 17km away.

Those ultimately responsible for Hong Kong's overspend had no concern for the public interest in using public money to best effect. Initial cost estimates were understated to deter opposition; completion time was underestimated to conform to a timetable set across the border.

Similar attitudes prevail in the case of the proposed giant incinerator. Of course Hong Kong badly needs incinerators, just as it needs the sort of waste management policies Tokyo instituted 45 years ago. But, instead of meeting critics with facts and long-term policies, the bureaucracy stonewalls, meanwhile blaming delays on the legislature.

That is not to defend the legislator silliness that gives representative government a bad name. Filibustering is not a right, but a dubious device that has mainly flourished in the US. But legislators cannot be blamed for taking a sceptical, if not cynical, view of the motives behind some big-ticket spending decisions. The Lamma IV, the rail project and the incinerator all provide ample cause for subjecting decisions to close scrutiny.

If the government wants to see more rapid progress, it had better lay out honestly alternative options and costs for public and expert discussion - then act decisively on the outcome. As it is, the public is subjected to reports by so-called independent consultants who are expected, if they want future business, to endorse a predetermined policy.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator