Tuesday, August 13, 2013, 07:54
Rare moves in the administration
By Lau Naikeung

A while ago, Hang Lung Group Chairman Ronnie Chan Chi-chung called Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah a “big sinner”. Although Tsang is a Catholic, I suppose Chan did not mean the alleged sin is pride, envy, lust, anger, gluttony, greed, sloth, or anything of religious nature. It was not even about sin in the traditional Chinese sense. Despite the language being used, contextually it was about nothing but the philosophy of public finance.

Few would have failed to notice that Chan is “a staunch supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying”, and that members of the Executive Council (ExCo), the Honorable Cheung Chi-kong and the then Honorable Franklin Lam Fan-keung were flanking him from both sides when he riled against Tsang.

Much has been said about the conflict between CY Leung and John Tsang. The fact that Cheung is on Chan’s payroll and Lam got rich dealing with real estate, the kind of business that the Hang Lung Group specializes in, did not make the whole thing look any better. But an interesting question remains: Why was there a need to voice Leung’s alleged discontent against Tsang in public?

Tsang can have his pet theory on what’s the best way to spend public money, but he does not call the shots. Leung does. According to Article 52 of the Basic Law, the Chief Executive has to resign when after the Legislative Council (LegCo) is dissolved because it refuses to pass a budget or any other important bill, the new LegCo still refuses to pass the original bill in dispute. The Basic Law does not ask the financial secretary to resign.

If Leung really had to ask Chan and others to pressure Tsang into giving him a budget to his liking, that’s a clear sign that our government is in trouble. But the press and the people in politics are right now treating it only as gossip, with many secretly wishing the split to be true.  

This gossip will be fueled by the resignation last week of Zandra Mok Yee-tuen, political assistant to the secretary for labour and welfare. As one of the first political assistants appointed by the Hong Kong government in 2008, and a former senior manager of the Bauhinia Foundation Research Center, it is clear that she is a legacy of the bow-tie era. The re-appointment was made soon after the end of the national education saga after she signed a petition against it. It has always been a mystery why Leung re-appointed her.

The reason given for her resignation is “work-family conflict”, which makes a mockery of the Labour and Welfare Bureau. It is not easy to be a working mom with career aspirations, and the government should take the lead to promote a mother-friendly workplace. However, there is also a possibility that this “work-family conflict” is only an excuse. Her children were not born yesterday, so why resign now? Would it be possible that she got a tip-off that the kitchen is about to get even hotter very soon? But of course this is guesswork, and there certainly may be perfectly solid reasons for her resignation.

Looking away from the principal officials, there are also telling signs on the frontline of governance. On Aug 4, the Hong Kong Food and Environmental Hygiene Department Staff Rights Union issued a statement challenging alleged biased police law enforcement in the Alpais Lam Wai-sze incident. Of course, this small union does not represent the government department, but it is still rare — and arguably inappropriate — for even a government staff union to openly criticize government employees of other departments.

A politically neutral and unified administration seems to be disappearing, which is both bad news and good news. The bad news is that the game as we know it will be changed, and a few bumps and bruises will be inevitable as we explore the new rules. The good news is that, in the process, the root of Hong Kong’s problems can be exposed and be systemically dealt with once and for all.

The author is a member of the Commission on Strategic Development.