Some time in mid-2003, I was at an otherwise forgettable lunch/speech gathering in a big hotel ballroom. Sitting opposite me at the round table of 10 was the rotund and garrulous Mike Rowse, boss of InvestHK, the Big Lychee’s inward investment agency. During the meal, he proudly announced to his little captive audience that he was about to ask the Legislative Council’s finance committee for a billion bucks, which would be used for various projects to help the city recover from the short but sharp economic downturn that accompanied SARS.
A few months later, I – and probably many of the other attendees at the lunch – saw something memorable: the Rolling Stones and Neil Young performing on separate nights at the outdoor Tamar site, surrounded by the skyscrapers of Admiralty. The Harbourfest series of concerts was unique in Hong Kong and people (Westerners, at least) still rave about it today. It was also a stupendous waste of HK$100 million of government money: the economy had bounced back of its own accord by that time. After going over this background, the context of Tung Chee-hwa’s disastrous post-1997 spell at running the city and the logistical feat of the shows, No Minister largely tells the story of what happened next.
Harbourfest was controversial, and a hostile press attacked it for its cost, Anglocentric choice of artistes, ticket prices, and the involvement of senior figures in the American Chamber of Commerce, whose idea it was and who largely organized the event, with the government essentially acting as sponsor. Accusations of mismanagement flew around, and a series of enquiries sought someone to blame. In theory, a policy-making politician should have been accountable, but unlike other economic relaunch projects, Harbourfest did not come under the direct auspices of any top-level bureau. The Finance and Commerce areas Rowse came under didn’t want to know; a more appropriate department, like the Home Affairs Bureau that organizes cultural events, mysteriously did not take the project under its wing.
Rowse ended up carrying the can, and was even subjected to a quasi-judicial disciplinary proceeding in which the roles of prosecutor, judge and jury were combined in individuals who were buddies of the senior officials with an interest in making him the scapegoat. He was punished in 2005 with a severe reprimand and a fine by way of a suspension in pay. For good measure along the way, his persecutors retroactively fiddled with minutes of meetings and indulged in press leaks against him. Interestingly, the media at this stage started to see him more as a victim.
The correct behaviour under Hong Kong’s Confucian-Victorian institutional ethos would be to take your punishment like a man, regardless of the unfairness, and not lose everyone face by making a fuss. A Bronze Bauhinia Star and a few appointments would make things right in the following years. Rowse, however, decided to do a Big Bad Argumentative Troublemaking Non-conformist Westerner act. After officials buck-passed his appeal until it was eventually rejected, he went to court. And he won.
That’s the story Rowse recounts. Reasonably gripping – at 100 pages – for any fans of bureaucratic skullduggery, if no Dreyfus Affair. The Rowse I saw drooling at the thought of having a billion to play with does not appear. (I suppose it is human nature for civil servants to avidly implement projects that suit them but suddenly be unaccountable non-policmakers when it becomes apparent the policy is a dud.)
A more interesting story would have gone like this:
Overenthusiastic American business figures, eager to help repair Hong Kong after its traumatic brush with death, ask their British buddy Mike in the government to fund an amazingly cool series of rock concerts, which they will put together. Mike, with a billion taxpayers’ bucks to burn and a great collection of old LPs, loves the idea. The committees of bureaucrats supposedly managing economic recovery, approve it (all the other projects are vacuous or childish things thought up by civil servants).
There is only one way to put such an event together in a quarter of the normal time, and that is to cut through red tape. That means leaving bureaucrats from boring paper-shuffling units looking after Home Affairs, Leisure and Cultural Services and tourism out of the loop. That means showing everyone else that they have no useful function. It means humiliating them. It means making them lose face. It leaves them burning with hatred at the arrogant, bigheaded gweilos.
In certain quarters, a series of phone calls would result in Mike getting the excrement-smeared meat-cleaver treatment. This being a respectable Hong Kong organization, mainstream supporters of harmony and The Way gang up on him by diverting press criticism and accountability in his direction. They work on absolving themselves of blame for the waste of Harbourfest and screwing Mike in one go. (Meanwhile, the racial and cultural factors at the heart of the problem make life especially difficult for Mike’s Chinese staff.)
The haughty and overconfident senior officials determined to stitch Mike up throw everything at him in a kangaroo court and expect him to shut up when their faces are saved and he is given a relatively mild punishment. Instead he fights back, exposing senior politicians as cowards, cheats and bullies and winning the hearts of the people. In a dream sequence at the end, the only senior official involved still in office when the full story comes out is now-Chief Secretary Henry Tang, whose hopes of becoming Chief Executive lie in tatters.
Peer carefully between the lines and use a healthy bit of imagination, and that’s the story you might read. Otherwise, wait for the movie.