Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung’s second town-hall meeting ends in the same sort of chaos as the first one. Governor Chris Patten did one or two public Q&A sessions like this to great acclaim, but he was a pro and perhaps they were more innocent times. Given the lack of substance in these forums, and the scuffling outside by protestors demanding his resignation, Leung must be wondering whether it is worth bothering with such laborious PR-driven gestures. Or just do them on air. (Or use focus groups and surveys, if you really want to research district-level problems.)
The impression from the media – most of which have a bias of some sort against the new administration – is that CY is chased out of the neighbourhood by a local mob each time he goes through one of these performances. The reality is that it is the same familiar group of radicals, accompanied by equally rabid camera crews. Small, informal (and statistically meaningless) polls around the office water-cooler suggest that a silent majority of the public wish the new regime well. But that was the case with Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang. The difference is that while its predecessors took months if not years to go into terminal decline, this government is starting to look like it’s floundering after just days in office.
While they could be unveiling exciting, controversial and popular initiatives, officials are reacting to events. CY apologizes endlessly for his wretched trellis, top Executive Council member WK Lam agonizes over far-fetched allegations of a conflict of interest, and half a dozen more squirm over such outrages as an illicit washing line sticking out of an apartment. Among the trivia are signs of some genuine potential problems.
First, there are Director of Audit David Sun Tak-kei and new Independent Commission Against Corruption boss Simon Peh Yun-lu. The former was a close supporter of CY’s campaign, while the latter met with CY and other appointees shortly before the new government was formed. Under normal circumstances, these might not matter too much, but in these times, in the immortal words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, “It’s always something – if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” Right now, if it’s not integrity (failure to publicly confess one’s garden ornamentation) it’s credibility (already knowing someone).
Pessimists already have grounds to oppose the pair. Sun isn’t a civil servant (if he was, presumably they’d complain about that) and has some sort of past issue too tedious to imagine concerning Ernst and Whitney. Peh was Director of Immigration, and therefore had to enforce Beijing’s edicts to turn away Falun Gong and other counterrevolutionary elements at the airport.
The real concern is that the audit and anti-corruption functions are highly sensitive and must be seen to be independent and impartial. In theory, the ICAC may have to drag CY himself into the dungeons for interrogation over his plant-frame. More worryingly, both agencies may have to go after parties that hate CY. If they do it, there will be claims that it is personal; if they don’t, people who might deserve attention won’t get it.
Second, there’s new Development Secretary Mak Chai-kwong’s civil service housing scam back in the 1980s. If your employer was dumb enough to pay your rent if you lived in a property legally owned by someone else, you’d do this too. And if it had been a private-sector employer, no-one would care. But he worked for the government, and we the taxpayers were paying the rent he put in his own pocket, so it stinks. The law apparently let him cheat taxpayers. And he did. His only hope is that amid all the mayhem as the lynch-all-trellis-owners brigade rampages around the place, people will forget it or not mull over it too much. Otherwise, Mak’s quite possibly a goner.
Third, we have the new administration backtracking on a pledge to tighten up the sale of local homes to Mainlanders. In the grand scheme of things, this probably won’t make much difference to the overall plan to boost affordable housing; that will depend on earmarking land for ‘subsidized’ homes (ie ones without inflated government revenues and developers’ profit margins built into the price). But to the extent that Mainlanders will continue to buy luxury real estate here, a clampdown would hurt the developers. Maybe President Hu had a word with CY last weekend about creating harmony with tycoons; that big North Point seafront site won’t be auctioned with awkward conditions attached.
These are, or are not, big deals – according to taste. But added together, in the absence of some quick and inspirational policy announcements, they have a flavour of 1999-era Tung or second-term Donald. After one week in power.