It may be completely reasonable that human error is to blame for Executive Councillor Lau Wong-fat's failure to disclose all his properties; Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen certainly thinks so. After all, Lau owns at least 724 plots of land - some of them bought and sold before the original purchase has even been completed. Given the scale of his holdings, it's a surprise he is even aware of everything he owns, let alone has staff knowledgeable enough to declare them.
But even if Lau's omissions are understandable, the whole saga nevertheless highlights some of the shortcomings of the 'accountability system'. It would be unreasonable to expect every member of the Executive Council to have experienced the challenges of ordinary Hongkongers from every single social strata. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see them make an effort to understand those challenges. On Sunday for example, Exco convenor Leung Chun-ying visited cage-home dwellers. In light of revelations that Hong Kong now has a greater percentage of people living in poverty than 10 years ago - at 18.1 per cent - Leung's move struck a chord. It may have been opportunistic, but it was better than being apathetic.
Lau's reaction to public discontent at his property interests however, was less sympathetic. He attributed it to some inherent trend within Chinese society 'to hate the rich' because they are 'jealous of [his] good fortune'. This is a bizarre comment to make about a society which has been founded on the pursuit and admiration of wealth. Hong Kong has always been proud, not ashamed, of its entrepreneurial spirit. Lau's dismissive remarks display a lack of understanding of what is expected of public officials. Tsang is also guilty of the same when he said he did not consider Lau 'had made use of privileged information available to Exco'.
For the public, the issue is not just about use of privileged information - that would have been the concern of anti-corruption agencies. But as specified in the Code for Officials under the Political Appointment System, the Chief Executive may be required to take measures against both actual and perceived conflict of interest. Under the chapter headed 'Prevention of Conflict of Interest' the very first article states 'politically appointed officials shall avoid putting themselves in a position where they might arouse any suspicion of dishonesty, unfairness or conflict of interest'. Lau has now put himself in exactly that position.
Lau's story of success reveals a man who has made a fortune from buying up land, the value of which dramatically increased as government housing and infrastructure projects were needed in the New Territories. As he has been head of the Heung Yee Kuk since 1980, he is already in a position which is fraught with potential conflicts of interest. Now, he is an Exco member with 724 plots of land at a time when land in the New Territories is at the centre of many controversial policies. A company of which he owns a 40 per cent stake is also taking advantage of confirmor transactions - a procedure which is often cited as a factor in driving Hong Kong's property prices, despite the administration seeking measures to curb such sales in an overheated market. The people of Hong Kong deserve a little more credit for spotting potential areas of conflict rather than be dismissed as being jealous of Lau's wealth. Accountability matters, not just in sticking to the letter of the rules, but in going out of one's way to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest. And on this score we could certainly do better.