One law for us, and another for the favoured few

Philip Bowring says it can only be to Hong Kong's great detriment that, from political fundraising to fisheries protection, the rule of law appears to have been applied selectively

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:33am

The rule of law in Hong Kong is being eroded, little by little. Seemingly small episodes become cumulative as executive fiat takes precedence over law. That undermines trust and strengthens the belief that the system is rigged to benefit those already at the top.

Let us start with the Basic Law, which we are told to read and obey. There is reasonable argument over interpretation of its electoral provisions. But there can be no doubt that the head of the liaison office's fundraising for the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong is contrary to the Basic Law's promise of a "high degree of autonomy" for Hong Kong's executive, legislative and judicial bodies.

The offence was compounded by the presence of Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, whose smiling public persona hides a track record of appeasing vested interests. The money-raising was hugely successful despite revelations of DAB legislator Elizabeth Quat's dubious doctorate and MBA degrees. How typical.

Now, we have the likely return to Hong Kong of Ma Sik-chun, the brother of the late "White Powder Ma", who jumped bail and fled to Taiwan in 1978. One may feel sorry for Ma's physical condition, but why should the government assist his return by saying that, while the arrest warrant stood, it would offer no evidence against him? He has lived in great comfort in Taiwan rather than having to face drug-related charges that may have led to a very long jail term in Hong Kong. What is the quid pro quo for treating Ma more kindly than he deserves?

That may be a one-off case but the government turns a blind eye on a daily basis to enforcing laws against the rich and powerful. The lawlessness of the New Territories in matters relating to land and buildings has long been notorious, thanks to the unwillingness of the saintly Lam and her ilk to face up to the thugs, and indeed the system that enables laws to be flouted brazenly and continuously.

This feebleness of government is seen in its whole policy on New Territories land, which is at the root of the building land shortages from which Hong Kong supposedly suffers. That problem is, of course, an old one - though it appears to have become worse after Heung Yee Kuk boss Lau Wong-fat was invited by then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to sit on the Executive Council, giving the feudal kuk a direct influence over policy and the non-enforcement of laws.

A newer problem is the non-enforcement of parking and other traffic regulations to please an elite of limousine owners and their chauffeurs who wish to avoid the inconvenience of walking to car parks. Which particular senior official has given instructions to the police to turn a blind eye to those who consistently flout parking regulations and cause great inconvenience to the travelling public? This is a particular problem in Central but Wan Chai and elsewhere also appear to have parking "untouchables".

Presumably, as chief secretary, Lam could order that the law be enforced. So why doesn't she? This is not just a matter of traffic flow. Law falls into general disrepute if it is seen to be so unfairly enforced. Or are our leaders simply learning from the mainland, where there is so often one law for Communist Party members and one for their subjects?

In Hong Kong's case, there already seems to be one law for bureaucrats and one for the rest. Let us remember the Lamma ferry disaster. It was followed by a very detailed report on the causes which placed blame for the heavy loss of life partly on the vessels' crews and partly on the Marine Department's failures. Since then, we have seen charges against crew members but apparently no one at the Marine Department is expected to take legal responsibility.

On another marine matter, how curious it is that public money was paid to fishing boat owners in an effort to reduce the number of such boats and so help protect local fisheries. But now, we learn that there has been an increase in registered vessels, many of the additions being more modern than their predecessors. Surely, there is a prima facie case here for reference to the excellent but undermanned office of the Director of Audit.

On the prosecutions front, it will be interesting to see whether the authorities really tackle money laundering or confine themselves to getting long jail sentences for minor cogs - widows paid paltry sums to act as intermediaries. The Hong Kong banking system is engaged daily in laundering mainland money which it has reason to believe were ill-gotten gains, assisting breaches of foreign exchange regulations and the manipulation of trade invoicing to move capital into or out of China.

But we all already know how much the favoured few in the financial sector gain at our expense. Reminders are many, including an increase in Mandatory Provident Fund contributions in June that will bring instant profits to the clique of firms allowed to charge ridiculous fees, and the so-called Hong Kong-Shanghai "through train", whose many restrictions exclude most retail trades. So much for free and fair markets, and the public interest, as self-serving executive fiats take over from common-law principles.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator