Participants in the Government Minister Deathwatch Sweepstakes are either rejoicing or mourning today. Those that had put their money on Development Secretary CK Mak have hit the jackpot, with their winnings automatically doubled – the man not only resigning from the cabinet but being picked up by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Those who thought Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim or Chief Executive CY Leung himself would be the first victims of what we can only describe as Everything-Gate will have to regain their losses with whoever’s next in line.
Bubbling up from the bewildering stew of scandals and quasi-scandals is Constitutional Affairs Secretary Raymond Tam who, in 1993, used a HK$500,000 government housing loan to buy a property from his parents. It is hard to see who the victim is here. In Mak’s case it seems clear that the taxpayer was being cheated. On the surface, he and a civil servant colleague were renting homes from each other with government housing allowances. But in reality it seems they essentially owned each other’s apartments, thus in practice paying rent to themselves, which is a no-no. (Did he bribe himself, too?) Whoever is dredging all this stuff up – and you don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to realize this isn’t all happening by accident – needs to dig deeper on Tam.
(The Standard also reports that the ICAC might finally charge the brothers Kwok and former Chief Secretary Rafael Hui today – as if clearing a backlog of high-profile cases to make room for the next batch.)
If CY Leung were as cunning and devious as we are led to believe, he would go on the offensive. The muckraking-ambush, we could postulate, originates at the level of CY-hating tycoons, or even the Beijing officials who backed Henry Tang, making full use of bureaucrats with grudges and our famously freewheeling press. Fighting back directly isn’t an option. Ideally, he would make some big populist announcements, but the longer he holds back on this, the bigger they will have to get to avoid looking contrived and defensive and thus backfiring. It’s getting to the stage where he’s leaving it too late.
A PR guru would accuse CY of reacting to events rather than controlling them. But the truth is that he isn’t even reacting. He shows no sign of panic, or even awareness that his administration looks like it’s collapsing around him. He refuses to comment because it’s ‘not appropriate’ and merrily carries on planning his next town hall meeting. It’s almost as if he is numbed by the successive shocks, as an amateur in these dark arts would be. Which suggests he is naïve: the wolf is in fact a lamb, and a slightly simple one at that. Has Jerzy Kosinsky’s Chance the Gardener turned up in Government House?
What is more likely, and certainly more in keeping with his reputed character, is that he is dismissing his tormentors as trivial compared with the important tasks ahead. Substance not style. But cabinet ministers are not ornaments. A CE does actually need some, and at the rate things are going he will run into supply problems. The pool of talent is small enough to start with; Henry’s old pals aren’t interested, Beijing has its loyalty test, and the local pro-Beijing crowd have their own reservations about many individuals.
Now, on top of all that, top officials must come completely unblemished. (Imagine what would be happening if CY’s officials had not all been through unprecedented two-hour police interviews to vet candidates for sex/drugs/money problems. The word is that not everyone passed.) One trellis, and you’re dead. No 20- or 25-year-old property deals with long-forgotten creative details allowed. Absolutely no infractions of our newfound, unattainable and almost otherworldly code of ethics can be permitted. Hardly anyone can seriously be sure of meeting this threshold of total lifelong innocence, and no-one in their right mind will volunteer to find out in full public view.
Maybe Beijing will move in and stamp out the campaign against the new administration (which it had to do on a smaller scale for CH Tung all those years ago). Another is that CY will just tough it out and win over some grudging public opinion when he starts to direct more resources to the elderly and other quarters. Several letters in the South China Morning Post in recent days have pleaded that CY deserves a chance to do his job. Some people are determined that he won’t get it.
Some light reading for the now-declared-open weekend: a learned paper on Hong Kong’s contribution to cyberpunk sci-fi cinema.