Donald Tsang

Apologies cannot hide a deep vein of elitism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

So, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has apologised for his extraordinary remarks about democracy and the Cultural Revolution. Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei-chun has apologised for criticising the MTR Corporation's chief executive for nominating an election candidate. We all say silly things from time to time. But apologies for stupidity cannot disguise the attitudes that underlie the remarks in the first place.

The chief executive clearly has an underlying distaste and distrust for the man in the street, let alone for the electoral democracy that gives voice to the majority. He clearly believes that rule by a group of self-electing, supposedly wise men such as himself is superior.

Mr Tien's remarks seemed based on an assumption that an employee of a majority-government-owned corporation should not be supporting a district council candidate from a political party - least of all one critical of the government (in this case the Civic Party). Yet, the Liberals' chief enjoys the sinecure of head of the Tourism Board, a wholly government-controlled body which, unlike the MTR Corp, is responsible only to the government.

Huge numbers of pro-government politicians are given seats on quasi-governmental boards and advisory bodies. Remember, too, how Mr Tien's brother was able to act as chairman of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation - and to prevail in a row with the professional management even though he was only a non-executive chairman.

The assumptions of both Mr Tien and Mr Tsang lead to the Singapore example, where the government party - or, in this case, parties - have tentacles deep in the bureaucracy and a big business sector in which the government plays a key role. In Singapore that role is usually as owner, while in Hong Kong it is as provider of bounty such as insider land deals.

You don't believe that? Perhaps then Mr Tsang could explain why it is now necessary to spend billions developing the Lok Ma Chau loop, an area previously deemed unsuitable for development for several reasons. The Independent Commission Against Corruption should be investigating why this turnaround has taken place; it should look into any role which may have been played by the land's owners in achieving a change that will doubtless benefit them - at high cost to the Hong Kong public. But don't hold your breath.

The suggestion that major local conglomerates can help create local self-help groups to alleviate poverty and unemployment is typically hypocritical - given that these companies get round the voluntary minimum-wage guideline for guards and cleaners by subcontracting the work.

The attitudes of the elite are all-pervasive. Jockey Club chairman John Chan Cho-chak - himself an ex-bureaucrat now heading a bus monopoly - chose to call its proposal for a redevelopment of the Central Police Station a 'gift to the people of Hong Kong'. What arrogance for a private club - given a betting monopoly that feeds off mostly lower- income punters - to describe this as a 'gift'! Feudalism is alive and well in the minds and actions of Hong Kong's elite.

At the apex of the feudal pyramid is not Mr Tsang but Beijing, which explains why he intends to spend so much public money on economically dubious rail and road projects to speed integration. Those are his orders: not to maximise Hong Kong's differences, but to minimise its separate status. Never having been in business and surrounded largely by similar people or those with few international interests, he sees business opportunities only vis-a-vis the mainland.

Quisling attitudes are also evident in resistance to allowing non-Chinese nationals to compete for Hong Kong in the Olympics. If Chinese nationality rather than residence is to be the qualification, Hong Kong has no business being treated as a separate entity by the International Olympic Committee. Its athletes should try to join the mainland team.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator