‘Do less, err less’ attitude lives on in the Hong Kong government
John Chan says the Wang Chau row exposes the mentality of officials who are quick to shirk responsibility for unpopular decisions, and our small-circle chief executive election only makes things worse
Brownfield sites in the New Territories go back a long way. Back, in fact, to the mass occupation of government and privately owned rural land for industrial and commercial use, in most cases illegally. It was regularised through the granting of short-term licences and waivers.
However, what started as a policy of tolerating in the short term the illegal occupation of government land, and allowing deviation from prescribed use on land parcels not immediately required for development, has fostered widespread abuse. Worse, it has become a tool used to regularise trespass and breaches of use. Many see this as caving in to vested local interests.
The government is pushing on with the first phase of the Wang Chau development plan in Yuen Long, evicting the non-indigenous villagers living on a green-belt site to build 4,300 public housing units. But it has taken no steps to terminate the short-term licences and waivers granted to the adjacent brownfield sites so that the remainder of the 17,000 planned units could be built.
Things turned ugly when both the chief secretary and the financial secretary denied playing any role in the decision to defer the project. Hong Kong people have been left wondering why no one in government, other than Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, seems to have been responsible.
At a press conference on the issue attended by both Leung and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, Leung said it was “his decision” as chairman of the Wang Chau project to develop it in phases, by adopting the Housing Bureau’s recommendation to build 4,300 units in the first phase, without touching the adjacent brownfields. He choked back tears when he talked about the difficulty faced by his government colleagues in “trying to find parcels of land bit by bit”.
It is obvious that the hindrance Leung faces in finding land for housing comes not only from vested interests and the Heung Yee Kuk, but also from bureaucrats’ unwillingness to shoulder responsibility.
Tsang, as chairman of the Steering Committee on Land Supply, the committee tasked with working out the details of the Wang Chau project – according to Leung – said earlier it was not the committee’s decision to defer the project. When asked at the press conference whether he agreed with Leung, the grim-faced Tsang said, “You always agree with your boss. No question about that.”
People were astonished to hear such an answer from the mouth of one of the top members of the SAR government. Tsang was one of the top officials (alongside the chief secretary and secretary for justice) to have attended a meeting chaired by the chief executive in January 2014, during which the decision on Wang Chau was made. Yet, Tsang acted as if he had nothing to do with the decision.
I sympathise with Leung. Ahead of the chief executive election next year, he has become a lonely figure at the top, with no one in the top echelon of government willing to come forward to share responsibility for the unpopular decisions, even though such decisions are supposed to have been made collectively.
During the colonial era, frontline civil servants had a saying: “The more you do, the more you err; the less you do, the less you err; and you don’t err when you do nothing at all.”
The wishy-washy “you don’t err when you do nothing” type of remarks by Tsang to distance himself from the Wang Chau decision typifies a nonchalant bureaucrat’s thinking. One man’s will to govern is not enough when his team has become a bunch of unenthusiastic bureaucrats waiting to see who will be the next boss.
Given his lack of a mandate under the current electoral system, the head of this lame-duck government will be a lonely man in Government House from now until the chief executive election next March. And, since the election will remain in the hands of a small circle of voters, things are unlikely to improve for whoever takes up residence on Upper Albert Road after June 30, 2017.
John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party