The View

Does Donald Tsang’s jailing put Hong Kong’s oligarchs on notice?

The downfall of the city’s former leader is either a necessary high point in Hong Kong’s jurisprudence, or the sign of its inevitable decline; it’s neither petty nor trivial

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 7:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 10:44pm

“Deservin’s got nothin’ to do with it,” Clint Eastwood said to Gene Hackman before he coldly dispensed cowboy justice in the classic Western Unforgiven.

Either you enforce the rule of law and governance in Hong Kong, or you don’t. There’s no middle ground.

The conviction and sentencing of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen either represents a necessary high point in Hong Kong’s reputation as a jurisdiction where law and order work under One Country Two Systems, or the sign of its inevitable decline.

The court judgement was predictably accompanied by laborious orgies of flagellation, wailing and gnashing of teeth, trying to overpower even the most indomitable case of logic and sensibility. Columnists and stalwart establishment types like Simon Murray label the case against Tsang as being based on “triviality and revenge.”

The Post’s columnist Jake Van Der Kamp casually dismissed the charges as being “petty.” Both represent a way of thinking that’s woefully out of touch with today’s conduct standards and what Hong Kong people demand from their leaders.

Unfortunately, fate and justice can be blind and cruel. A fishmonger isn’t being sent to jail for rigging scales, it’s a former Chief Executive for misconduct.

Fortunately, Hong Kong’s justice system works for and against both of them. Except that the fishmonger isn’t going to receive letters of support from the city’s great and good.

The critics can’t answer this: At what level do you turn a blind eye to misconduct, for a public official who has a fiduciary duty to public interest? The plea of leniency has nothing to do with law, but rather mercy and compassion. They reveal Hong Kong’s most insidious problem in the most obvious fashion by demonstrating how intertwined the property cartel and senior civil service have become.

The undeniable fact is that the government bureaucracy wields extraordinary power in the management of land policy and decisions in developments. That power is often discretionary and exercised behind close doors. The temptation to abuse that power is always nearby, so conflict of interest and governance must be enforced without mercy and exception. More importantly, transparency is the starting point of any enforcement regime.

The thin, but common line between corruption and crony capitalism is that people in an organization turn a blind eye to it.

It becomes a norm. This is why misconduct keeps occurring in the banking industry. It’s not just the malfeasance of one or two colleagues, but that everyone see it happening and choose to do nothing. It’s as much a matter of perception as it’s about real dollar amounts.

And the problem with distinguishing between ‘real corruption’ and being ‘comped’ (given complimentary gifts) is a particularly hazardous problem, which can easily morph into a slippery slope of corruption and self entitlement. Just because you can accept a comp, since it’s not a bribe, doesn’t mean you should. That’s why many companies limit the value of gifts and entertainment. It’s as subtle as someone picking up your dinner tab or offering free decoration expenses.

The coziness between property developers and civil servants can be readily witnessed at the Jockey Club, where they openly socialize with each other. Or at high-end Chinese restaurants like Fook Lam Moon.

After 1997, their collusion became flagrant and open, culminating in the Cyberport deal where the government handed over a prime piece of Hong Kong land to Richard Li Tzar-Kai without a public tender. To be sure, the government’s explanation was that the pace of technology dictated that they act quickly, so they bypassed the public process at their discretion.

And then there’s the inevitable moral corrosion of envy. Seeing how these tycoons and their extended families live like oligarchs by arbitraging a feeble government land process was like entering a parallel universe. The jets, the women, the homes… it’s watching the reality version of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

The coziness was in full evidence when Li Ka-Shing recently declared his non-involvement in the nomination of candidates for the Chief Executive’s election.

“I would not nominate anyone as the others are all my close friends,” he said. That no one asks how a major property developer could be “close friends” with civil servants who manage our land shows how everyone accepts these relationships as being normal in Hong Kong.

Thus, the system leaves us with a restricted leadership pool of insiders -- only those who have served in government can qualify.

It has an inbuilt potential for chronic corruption, much like a slowly growing anthill that feeds upon everything around it.

It reduces the civil service to dismal, mincing servants, who so remind me of one of Man Tak’s more loathsome imperial characters in an early 90s Stephen Chow Sing-chi movie.

It has single handedly done more to hurt Hong Kong’s economy and tear our society apart more than anything else.

Peter Guy is a financial writer and former international banker