• Fri
  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 5:18am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 4:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2014, 4:33am

In Hong Kong, privilege protects its own

Philip Bowring says the ease with which the elite in Hong Kong escape accountability for their decisions and professional conduct is dismaying, and dangerous for society


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.

The importance of the rule of law, and of the subjugation of the executive to laws, is critical to the maintenance of Hong Kong's society and government system. So it is both alarming and encouraging to see what is happening in Macau, where institutions are less deeply rooted in law than is the case here.

That the executive has been persuaded to withdraw a bill giving immunity from prosecution to serving officials is a response to the spirited opposition of the thousands who demonstrated against it - reportedly Macau's biggest post-handover anti-government protest.

Yet the Macau episode is a reminder that while no Hong Kong official has such immunity, certain well-connected individuals and firms are given de facto immunity from punishment for illegal activities and non-criminal but sleazy and unprofessional behaviour.

Notwithstanding the axed bill, Macau lags behind the newly developed states of East Asia, notably South Korea and Taiwan, where former presidents have been prosecuted for money- related crimes committed while in office, and where ministers are expected to take responsibility for serious failures in administration. Even the Philippines has done likewise. Hong Kong seems to hover somewhere in between, with the rule of law remaining in effect but with officials seeming to enjoy Teflon status, however incompetent they have been shown to be.

For sure, there are dangers that the law will be abused for political purposes by biased courts. Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian may have received an excessive sentence from anti-Democratic Progressive Party judges. But few doubt that he committed crimes and merited prosecution.

It may be mere symbolism, but ministerial resignations following such tragedies as the Sewol ferry sinking are surely a major advance compared with the civil service cover-ups observed in the case of the sinking of the Lamma IV, in which, after two years, only seamen have been charged.

Due process and justice is not just a matter of implementation of laws without fear or favour. It is also about the proper conduct of professional bodies given the privilege of regulating their own interactions with the public they are supposed to serve. The medical and accounting professions have recently provided massive evidence of their reluctance to provide timely and independent assessment of allegations of professional misconduct. Not for the first time, they appear to have been abusing their privilege.

Whatever the degree of correctness of the outcome, the fact it took nine years for the Medical Council to make a final judgment in the case of the death of a baby shortly after delivery is itself a denial of justice. In this case, the doctors' self-protection organisation initially rejected the parents' complaint, and then took another five years after new evidence was submitted to come to a conclusion.

The Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants does no better, for years shielding well-connected former head of Ernst & Young, Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, from a decision over his 1999 involvement in a collapsed investment company. Despite the case against him, Wu was appointed chairman of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Centre - a tycoon-funded, pro-establishment so-called think tank - and the publicly financed Hospital Authority.

The case was allowed to drag on for so long that, by the time the institute finally came to a decision - which it tried to bury by announcing it on December 24 - deeming Wu guilty of professional misconduct, he had retired. How convenient for all concerned, not least the government officials who handed key roles to Wu even while he was under investigation for serious professional misconduct. Five months on, no disciplinary action has been announced.

Less obvious instances of what market practitioners see as the non-enforcement of laws can be seen in reference to certain mainland companies listed in Hong Kong with boards composed of influential mainland names. The Securities and Futures Commission seems to prefer not to delve into companies or people who might claim to be protected by "state secrets", however dubious their accounts.

And then there are the well-known issues that citizens see around them daily - illegal land use and buildings in the New Territories, and the illegal parking of cars in Central and other areas. Failure of the police to take meaningful action benefits the 1 per cent, regardless of the inconvenience to the 99 per cent, and is clearly a decision of the police chief or higher still in the administration. Is there a pecuniary reason for this failure to enforce the law equally, or a political incentive? Either way, sustained refusal to implement laws impartially is a form of corruption.

If the trend continues towards the unequal administration of justice, and the ability of elite bodies to place large obstacles in the way of victims of professional misconduct, it will not be long before we are in a Macau situation. For sure, the many yes-men and trough-feeders in the Legislative Council and on government bodies will be quick to support immunity legislation, as most of their counterparts in Macau did.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

John Adams
Mr Bowring,
This is one of your finest ever statements of the truth, unpalatable though it may be to those in power and with the privilege they so blatantly abuse, starting with our former CE. Donald Tsang
There are numerous illegal things going on today which the government, the police, the various professional councils , and sometimes even the judiciary connive at which would never have been allowed to happen in the days of Sir Murray MacLehose.
It's a long , slippery path but Hong Hong, dominated by its ruling elite and corrupt tycoons, has certainly slid down that path to ruin.
Philip, you are bang on target, as usual.
Well put, Mr. Bowring. Unless all are held equal before the eyes of the law, there is no truly functioning rule of law. In HK, the privileged 1 percenters may be the financial elite. In China, the privileged 1 percenters are the CCP elite. When you get kids of high ranking officials declare, after causing traffic accidents and injuring/maiming/killing people, that their "father is so-and-so", it clearly illustrates the culture of elites (and their families) feeling above and beyond the reach of law. It's not good enough for China, and certainly isn't good enough for HK.
The difference is that in China, you get the occasional high profile politically-motivated take-downs, like Bo Xilai. But that's not a good thing, since it aptly illustrates that political elites don't merely feel above the law, but that they can wield it for political purposes rather than strictly for the pursuit of justice. HK's system where it lacks teeth to adequately deal with the well-connected may well be on the slippery slope, but it's not nearly as far down the rabbit hole as China. This does not excuse the decrepit nature of the HK system, but should certainly serve as a cautionary tale against embracing the CCP way.
A well written article; Hong Kong is becoming a lawless society; major crimes of murder and acts of violence are becoming more prevalent; but it is not these major crimes that are the concern, it is the daily abuse of much smaller issues that lay the foundation for the escalation of crime; constant and daily abuse by drivers to park wherever they like (and this is not just drivers for the rich) is but one area where the inept ability of our Police force, and this is a direct result of senior police being instructed, or let's be honest - paid, to ignore illegal parking, idling and obstruction. The grounds for decay in a society start with petty issues, in Hong Kong, since 1997 the erosion of police enforcement has been staggering - the Royal Hong Kong Police Force was a force that served effectively, the present Hong Kong Police Force is a laughable joke staffed with pen pushers ....
@"it will not be long before we are in a Macau situation"
And what's wrong with "their situation"?
There is no great groundswell push for democracy in Macau and their government generally functions rather well. When the grass roots get sufficiently upset about a particular problem and vents its anger, a corrective course of action or policy change kicks in. Even when corruption raises its ugly head at the highest level in Macau we have seen big names swiftly prosecuted and those involved locked up for many years....... whereas in Hong Kong there are "extensive enquiries" conducted culminating in officials' wives saying " sorry, my mistake..... I didn't know it was illegal" followed by a slap over the wrist and a small fine. Even the congested traffic in Macau's narrow streets generally keeps moving because the traffic police there can still be seen doing their jobs properly.
There's not much wrong with the Macau system and their people do not need this spoiling by ignorant buffoon politicians, anarchists waving Portuguese flags or an "Occupy Senado Square" movement by teachers and professors.
Mr Bowing, much of what you wrote is correct but singling out Macau, suggesting their government is inferior, is quite wide of the mark.
woohoo Hong Kong sucks, lets get rid of anyone in senior management or a senior official because they are all inept corrupt baffoons whom only God knows why they would want to be in a position of leadship.
Then we'll elect Long Hair to be our leader, and we'll all share a spiff and sing kumbaya together while watching the mob gullotine all the property tycoons.
Unless you are willing to step up and take the reins Mr Bowring, work with what we've got like the rest of us. It';s not perfect, but this is our home, is it yours?
It is indeed Mr. Bowring's home for decades, and I would deduce in the time he has spent in Hong Kong, he has added more to the success of the city than you ever will. If you don't have anything constructive to say - shut up!


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