Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Our Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, is looking wounded. She’s inflicted a self-injury. It may yet derail her. Having made a fair start last year, winning the pundit's acclaim for her openness, she’s now faltering. In the beginning, she made the right noises, appeared more open than her predecessor. This suggested a more settled political environment was coming. Then reality hit home.
She made a decision - a fatal decision - that now leaves her open to relentless attack. Further, her defence is at best weak, at worst deceitful and condescending. She appointed Teresa Cheng as our Secretary for Justice.
Then it's discovered that Cheng had ten illegal extensions to her property in Tuen Mun. Authorities later identified ten more illicit structures on other properties in Repulse Bay and Sha Tin. Further, these alterations suggest that Cheng has avoided paying large sums in rates. Thus, the allegation could be made she has taken from the public coffers.
The vetting that accompanies such an appointment was lacking or missing. No matter, the damage is done.
Part of the anger that arose centered on Hong Kong’s inflated property market. People here struggle to own even a tiny flat, with families living in cramped conditions. Even so, a powerful aspiration to own a concrete box in the sky exists. Having an apartment is a mark of success in this money-obsessed society. Against this background, cheating the system is reprehensible, especially for senior officials. For that official to be the SOJ, just rubs salt in the wound.
Any rational person would question the suitability of Cheng to continue in office. It’s evident her illegal structures existed for at least a decade, yet she claims to have been too busy to notice. Then, to add to the intrigue, it’s revealed that Cheng’s ‘unknown’ husband lived next door. He’s an architect, who also has illegal structures. The plot thickens when its revealed that Carrie Lam, Poon and Cheng are close friends. How close? Some reports suggest that Lam acted as a witness at their wedding.
Are you getting the picture?
Since the illegal structures came to light, Lam’s support of her friend is relentless; if weak on reasons and rationale. Lam argued Cheng was open enough to admit the offences. Given the evidence, she could hardly do otherwise. Then, it’s asserted high-fliers from the professions would think twice about joining the government, for fear of media scrutiny. To which, I’d reply; if they can’t withstand scrutiny, they are unfit for the position.
In the process, Lam damaged her standing by providing the opposition with a secure, comprehensible, means of attack. To them, Lam is protecting a mate. And, in short, Lam created a rod for her own back.
In fairness, illegal structures are a standard feature of properties here. Decades of failure by the government have allowed the situation to escalate. Meanwhile, powerful political interests ensure enforcement action is lackadaisical at best. Even the attack gets blunted by the fact that opposition figures have illegal structures.
None of this distracts from the main issue; the SOJ should be like Caesar’s wife. To execute the ‘rule of law,’ the SOJ must be above suspicion. In this instance, the evidence is tangible including by Cheng’s tacit admissions. Lam must understand the negative impact that this imbroglio is having on public sentiment. It’s easy for critics to assert, with evidence, that the Hong Kong Government is morally astray.
Why does Carrie Lam find herself in this position? Considering her background is helpful. Schooled in the art of administration by the British, Carrie is part of the elite 'administration officer' cadre. The system that taught her, then nurtured and shaped her talents, arose to perpetuate the Empire. It’s not a system best suited to managing a modern, plural city of diverse interests.
I’m familiar with the AOs. With a robust group identity, they’ve adopted the manners and mores of their former British bosses. Under it all is a thinly disguised disdain for the ‘lower orders’. On occasions, the camouflage slips with their arrogant ways exposed. Appointed as the guardians of Hong Kong, the AO cadre is a peculiar mix of superiority and civility.
Like proconsuls, they enjoy autonomy. Operating with a light touch, slow to act and ultra cautious. They don’t respond kindly to consultation or too much local input. They cling to tried and tested ways. The Imperial institutions and emblems are gone, yet the attitudes linger.
You get a sense from Lam’s statements that she views criticism as an impertinence. She’s also fallen back on her religious credentials to bolster attempts to portray honesty. It suggests desperation because the criticisms are sticking.
None of this is doing anything to endear Lam to the young generation. They have an ardent sense of justice and view Lam’s actions as blatant cronyism. More ammunition with which to assail the government.
My intuition tells me that Carrie Lam is at heart a decent sort. Her current dilemma results from a rush to appoint Cheng. A fumbled vetting exercise compounded the situation. She's now conflicted by sentiments of friendship versus political factors. Her background, mindset and a sense of purpose, clouded a straightforward matter.
Whichever way you view it, Lam faltered in a basic leadership test. She has a subordinate who brings discredit to her team. The only option is a quick exit, some damage control and then move on. Instead, Lam has a festering sore that will continue to weep without healing. Each time Cheng makes a decision - as the SOJ these are always contentious - someone will pick the scab to expose the raw flesh. Lam will feel the pain.
I leave the last word to my old friend Sun Tzu (孫子) - “When a general is over-solicitous of his men, it is easy to harass him”.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.