Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying certainly has not helped himself with his apparent lack of candour over unauthorised structures. But a bigger issue has come to the fore which, while not his fault, raises serious questions about standards of integrity among senior government servants more broadly. Has he been trapped by the self-protecting elite of a civil service, where the boundary between politician and bureaucrat has become indistinct?
The flat swapping once engaged in by former development minister Mak Chai-kwong and his civil service colleague Tsang King-man has all the marks of the opportunism of investment bankers, rather than the standards expected of administrative officers. Whether the pair's complex arrangements providing for mutual purchases of the rented flats amounted to beneficial ownership is a legal issue. But it clearly went beyond what we are now told was 'normal' - agreements between civil servants to rent each others' flats and thus avoid the rules against being paid a rental allowance for one's own flat.
This idea of what was 'normal' is shocking. It seems there has long been a culture within the civil service of accepting such devices rather than changing the rules to ensure they achieve their original intent. What have new Secretary for the Civil Service Paul Tang Kwok-wai - once on the Standing Commission on Civil Service Salaries and Conditions of Service - or Permanent Secretary Raymond Wong Hung-chiu to say about this? Wong was once head, at the age of 46, of the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Another who might have some thoughts on the matter is Lam Woon-kwong, whose civil-service career also includes being secretary for the civil service, and who now masquerades as an 'independent' chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission while also being Executive Council convenor.
Indeed, instead of looking outside the ranks of civil servants and 'patriotic' stalwarts for new ministers, for people capable of making decisions and not beholden to established interests, Leung seems to be at least as reliant on the civil service 'mafia' as his predecessor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. It beggars belief that, in a city built on business, he could not find a replacement for Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, a man of almost legendary lack of imagination or cunning. Are there not people like Leung himself, a successful, self-propelled professional?
Senior civil servants enjoy a combination of job security, excellent salaries, medical benefits and pensions. They are even allowed to retire very young and take lucrative private- sector jobs. Meanwhile, those in lower levels unable to get such plum posts suffer from having to retire at the absurdly young age of 60. In return, the senior public servants are expected to not merely refrain from corrupt practices, but to adhere to high standards of conduct and not try to game the system.
It is noteworthy that revelations of the failure to meet such standards have come from the media, rather than the actions of the Civil Service Bureau or any other official organ. Clearly, as Donald Tsang's recent misfortunes illustrate, standards have slipped. Indeed, given his previous reputation for probity, one must worry about what has been going on elsewhere among civil servants less dedicated to their jobs than he was.
One reason for any decline in standards just might be the way the ICAC has become, to all intents and purposes, simply another government department. It is not even treated as an especially important one, as the later career paths of some recent incumbents - for example, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, Raymond Wong and Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong - illustrate. It is no more or less like being director of immigration or education.
Yet its responsibilities are much greater and go well beyond administrative competence, the main measure of judging departmental heads. The ICAC is a special agency reporting directly to the chief executive. It should thus be seen to be detached from the civil service and the competition for promotion within it.
If the head of the ICAC is to be anyone from the civil service, or a former minister, it must be someone at the end of their career and thus less likely to show fear or favour because of concern for his or her future.
Nor is there any reason why the post should not go to someone outside the charmed civil-service circle. Indeed, recent events involving ministers and senior bureaucrats suggest that the ICAC badly needs to be run by an independent person from the private sector, or a professional body or academia, or by a retiring senior judge whose integrity and good sense have been on public display.
The ICAC is weakened by being seen as a captive of the civil-service system. It is further weakened by suspicions that chief executives like to keep it that way and appoint those still rising up the ladder, who are more sensitive to his expectations. That the ICAC head reports to the chief executive should not imply that he takes orders on what to pursue. Do chief executives fear appointing someone of integrity, who is not easily browbeaten into compliance with political requirements? This post must be seen to be given to one who understands that its first word is and must be 'independent' - that is, of the whole bureaucracy and government system, not just the police.
With its special powers, the ICAC's independence and integrity are vital. If they cannot be sustained, it should be abolished.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator