Hong Kong's tainted water scare

Hong Kong bureaucrats’ response to report on lead-tainted water is buck-passing at its finest

Alice Wu says ‘systemic failure’ is just an excuse allowing officials to escape blame for the scandal. Sadly, this refusal to be accountable will only breed public cynicism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 11:01am

Perhaps it’s only to be expected that when the authors of the independent investigation into the lead-tainted water scandal in Hong Kong concluded that the fiasco was “a classic case of buck-passing”, it was met with an official response displaying the ultimate form of “buck-passing”: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s decree that no single official should be held personally responsible for a crisis caused by systemic failures.

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Somehow we knew that if we left it to the bureaucrats, they would insulate themselves from failure. They have somehow managed to mangle what German philosopher Max Weber saw as bureaucracy’s “special virtue” – impersonality – into a monster. Impersonality is a virtue in Weber’s world, because “under the principle of sine ira et studio (without scorn and bias), the more bureaucracy is ‘dehumanised’, the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation”. Once upon a time, impersonality made bureaucrats efficient; now, it’s “non-human”.

Water Supplies Department bears brunt of responsibility for scandal

The Water Supplies Department faces the bulk of criticism in the damning report. It was criticised for its inadequate understanding of the World Health Organisation guidelines it adopted in 1994.

Of course, an inanimate object doesn’t “understand” WHO guidelines; actual people can. If someone at the department couldn’t comprehend a guideline, then it’s most definitely human error. Someone – not something – was incompetent in his or her job.

While Lam found no intentional breach of rules or abuse of power on the government’s part, that’s no excuse. Her brazen words were bureaucratese of the most despicable kind. Ignorance may not be a crime, but surely the public has a right to expect bureaucrats to have a certain basic level of competency in carrying out their duties.

To tell those who have had to drink tainted water because a “collective” of individuals failed to do their jobs – and that since there was a bunch of them, they can high-handedly excuse themselves from any individual responsibility – is a classic display of arrogance.

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It’s a betrayal of public trust that people who are put in charge of our water supply cannot figure out what is safe and what is not. Official arrogance breeds public cynicism and the more officials feel they can be insulated from basic accountability, the more they will be scorned.

It is scary, actually, if we consider all the recent talk of “likely” candidates to run in next year’s chief executive election. Lam’s name has been floated as one possible candidate from the current administration.

Another, like Lam, has taken the same bureaucratic path to politics. Since Lam has dismissed the need for anyone in her wonderland of officialdom to take responsibility, perhaps the other “likely” candidate – Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah – might consider shouldering the blame here, and step down for something no one in their right mind would consider his fault?

I’m dreaming here, of course. But that way, he could begin his work early and could not be accused of trying to campaign on the public’s dime, while still in office. Most importantly, he could set himself apart from all that has made people wince whenever the word “bureaucrat” is mentioned.

If Tsang could set himself apart as big enough to admit to other people’s mistakes, he may be smart enough to profit from them, and we might just believe that he is strong enough to correct them.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA