Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Donald Tsang is a character of legend. Yet, his story is more a tragedy than it is a morality tale. The Hong Kong lad born to a strict police father, raised in a relentless Jesuit school. He had a stellar career that saw him rise to the top of the pile and he threw it away on petty greed. Serving a 20-months jail term for misconduct in public office, he now sits in a tiny cell. His reputation in tatters. The former Chief Executive, saviour of Hong Kong’s economy has had a fall from grace of epic portions. But why?
By all accounts, Donald was good at what he did. As District Officer Shatin, he proved an able administrator in the colonial mode. Keeping the locals appeased, whilst steering various government initiatives through to successful conclusion. The new town was undergoing a period of rapid growth. It needed a deft hand, which Donald provided.
A spell with the Asian Development Bank affirmed his status as a flyer. Held in high regard, next came the monumental task of implementing the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Again, he excelled. By 1995 he was Financial Secretary. The retreating British, in the closing moment of colonial rule, had Prince Charles dab his shoulders with a sword. “Arise Sir Donald”.
This bauble presented by the most fatuous member of the House of Windsor gave an insight that marked the true Donald. He’d insist on being ‘Sir Donald’ and woe betide any feckless member of staff who forgot it. Then when the hapless TUNG Chi-wah stood aside as Chief Executive in 2005, Donald took the job. He immediately moved into Government House, where he spent $300,000-HK building himself a fish pond. When asked the merits of keeping fish he replied: “They don’t answer back”.
With memories of rampant corruption still fresh in the minds of folks, Donald fronted the campaign for clean governance. Lambasting civil servants to maintain the highest standards. The advice he should have taken himself.
In 2009 he stood accused of implementing initiatives that favoured his family members. This ignited a war of words with the media. A truculent Tsang did not back down.
It was towards the end of his second term as Chief Executive that the rumours started. Tsang and wife were allegedly enjoying entertainment and travel from powerful business people. Stories of travel on private jets and luxury yachts did not play well. The public suspicious of government and big business collusion. Tsang feigned innocence. Then the bombshell landed. Tsang had taken a flat in Shenzhen at a discounted rate from a businessman. A businessman bidding for a broadcasting license. Whilst deliberating the license bid Tsang failed to declare this deal. In 2015, two counts of 'misconduct in public office' and one count of 'accepting an advantage' resulted.
Pure greed can be the only explanation for Tsang’s actions. It's evident he enjoyed the adornments of wealth. With his large civil service pension, he’d have enjoyed a retirement beyond the means of the majority. This was not enough. The trapping of wealth fed a vainglories personality and took him off the path of virtue. Even a Jesuit background could not steer him on a straight path.
The trial this month saw the entire Hong Kong establishment turn out for Tsang. The evidence and letters of support revealed the top echelons of Hong Kong’s government have a perverse take on accountability. The fact that Tsang is a devote Catholic was cited as reasons for clemency. One wonders if Buddhists and the like are liable for the same indulgence. Others hung their pleas on the fact he’d done good work in the past.
Fortunately, the Court appears to have ignored these puerile attempts to derail justice. Tsang received a sentence that is commensurate with the crime and the power he wielded. The establishment has seen fit to continue bleating with requests for special treatment. It was thus pleasing to see Tsang taken to prison in a brown uniform and handcuffed. The same as other criminals. Such observations are not petty nor vengeful, but rather an affirmation of equality before the law.
This sorry episode has blown the curtain back on the attitudes of senior personalities in the Hong Kong establishment. The sight is unedifying. It reveals an outlook of privilege and sense of immunity because of one’s position. Hopefully, the conviction of Tsang will blow some holes in these sanctimonious beliefs.
The chant is always for democracy. The unquestioned mantra is that more democracy equals more freedom and prosperity. But is that the case? And what does democracy means in any case? These are questions that went through my head as I escorted pro-democracy processions.
In my more mischievous mood, I’d take the opportunity to pose these very issues to the students or young people I was escorting.
“What sort of democracy do you want?”
“Like in the US or UK” would be a common reply.
If time and circumstances permitted I’d offer “But the US president is not elected by one man one vote.
It’s an electoral college system. The President could win but have fewer votes than his rival.”
The perplexed looks this drew often indicated the conversation was over. What struck me first is their ignorance of how democratic systems work or evolve. Also, the blind assertion that once we get ‘democracy’ it solves all their problems is baffling. It's also plain naive. Yet, it's a seductive notion. A simple theory. The perfect excuse for evasion of certain truths and omission of evidence. There is a shorthand to the thought processes of these protesters: 'Democracy/ voice/ all is well'. They skip: 'How it works/ influence peddling/ fickle public opinion/ bad outcomes'. I suppose all that is too complex for those following slogans. You can’t speak of the ocean to a frog that lives in a well.
Professor Francis Fukuyama points out that geography and climate have as much impact on the economic success of a nation as its political institutions. Be these democratic or otherwise. Given the complex nature of human behaviour, it is not possible to attribute an outcome to a single factor. Thus, it’s arguable that ‘democracy' (in whatever form) will bring about the goal the Hong Kong protesters Hong Kong seek.
The track record of introducing democracy to post-colonial states is patchy at best. Yes, I know that Hong Kong is not a state as such. Yet, the nearest comparison we can find is what happened in the post-colonial nations. Democracy has not brought good outcomes for most of the African States liberated from colonists. Even when the departing British left behind a template based on the so-called 'mother of parliaments'. It's not working well in Afghanistan either. Nor is the system operating in Russia a shining example of democracy best outcomes.
Nearer to home, the Philippines bumps along. Corruption distorting any attempt to gain good for the majority. The power of money and influence peddling is stark, whilst State institutions appear weak in the face of strong leaders.
And that's the point about democracy and probably it's greatest weakness. It allows powerful forces with money and influence to capture the political process to the detriment of the majority. Fringe elements mobilised against the greater good have undue sway. Hence, Brexit and Trump.
Opinion is divided on what makes a democracy function well. Certainly strong institutions that function according to the law are crucial. These act to counterbalance the demands of malevolent leaders or over zealous political entities.
On this basis, Hong Kong has indicators that suggest democracy would work here. These include strong institutions such as the Courts, rule of law and a relatively corruption-free police force. The ICAC and other agencies also play a role.
Nonetheless, I'd expect that in any democratic Hong Kong vested interests would continue to wield influence. Seeking to protect their businesses leading current players would shift their influence peddling. They'd now focus on democratic bodies. Given their considerable resources it's foreseeable that their influence, whilst less direct, would be large. Thus the existing centres of influence would remain intact.
So by no means does democracy bring the people power nirvana the young protesters on the streets of Hong Kong seek. Democracy will come to Hong Kong. I hope the marchers and protesters are happy with the outcome. But I'm not so sure the outcome will appease them.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.