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    Greater China
     Jun 3, 2008
Hong Kong deputies disappoint
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - In a major embarrassment to the Hong Kong government, five of eight newly appointed deputy ministers have admitted to holding foreign citizenship, not exactly instilling confidence in the one country, two systems formula under which the city has operated since the 1997 handover from British rule.

Moreover, in a further blow to the government's credibility, it is clear even to a casual observer that the talents and backgrounds of most of the new deputies are patently mismatched with their new portfolios.

Nine so-called "political assistants" have also been appointed. All together, these appointments are the first to be announced for 24

 

non civil-service positions - 11 deputy ministers, or under secretaries, and 13 political assistants - that have been created to make life easier for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his three policy secretaries and 12 ministers. The remaining appointments are expected to be announced soon.

The bungled introduction of these two additional layers to the city's political structure, which the Tsang administration has touted as the best way to nurture new political talent while also creating greater efficiency and accountability in government, has only served as a reminder of the chief executive's bent to surround himself with lightweight, Beijing-friendly political lackeys loathe to offer dissenting views. Now it appears several of them are also ready to flee abroad if they get things wrong.

No sensible analyst ever bought into the plan to create this 24-person political phalanx around the chief executive. From the start, although promoted as a key aspect of the government's murky "accountability system", it smelled like a rat. And a rat it has turned out to be. The pretense may be to foster political talent, but that talent is suspect and the politics are all about bolstering support for Tsang and pleasing Beijing.

And, since the government has provided no real job descriptions for these aspiring political stars, it is left to the public to figure out what they will do other than, in the case of the deputy ministers, lavish praise on government policies in public and before the Legislative Council (Legco). Meanwhile, taxpayers will be dishing out salaries of HK$104,340 (US$13,371) to HK$163,963 a month for political assistants and HK$193,773 to HK$223,586 a month for deputy ministers.

What they will get in return is greater loyalty to the party line in Beijing and further erosion of checks and balances in the city's governance. But they are unlikely to see their government become any more efficient or accountable; indeed, the opposite is likely to be true.

There is also the worry that the ill-defined duties of the new deputies may conflict with the work of permanent secretaries in the civil service, whose traditional political neutrality could come under threat. Former civil service minister Joseph Wong Wing-ping, now an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, has warned of this. Wong also called on under secretaries to renounce their foreign citizenship and said the government was wrong to pay different salaries to different deputy ministers and political assistants.

Tsang's ruse might actually have worked if his administration had found eminently qualified people to fill the new posts. Obviously, however, that is not the case. Thus, the appointments were made recently in a low-key announcement without any accompanying fanfare. Perhaps Tsang and his ministers were hoping the media and public would overlook the glaring lack of qualifications held by most of the appointees for their new positions.

Only two of the eight new deputies have professional backgrounds that clearly recommend them for their portfolios. Gabriel Leung, a 35-year-old professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, will be the under secretary for food and health. Leung holds a master's degree in public health from Harvard University and a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Hong Kong. He has also served as a consultant to a number of international organizations, including the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

The under secretary for financial services and treasury, Julia Leung Fung-yee, 48, is executive director of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority. In addition, she has media credentials, having worked for the Wall Street Journal for 10 years before joining the authority.

Although he holds a master's degree in business administration, Gregory So Kam-leung's appointment as under secretary for commerce and economic development is largely a political reward. So, a 49-year-old lawyer, is vice chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city's largest political party.

In a nod to the civil service, Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, 44, will be under secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs. Tam, whose educational background is in engineering, has worked in various capacities in the civil service since 1987. While not, by far, the worst appointment, his qualifications don't exactly leap out and grab you.

The missing link between solid professional credentials and portfolios becomes downright embarrassing in some other cases. For example, why was Kenneth Chen Wei-on, the 43-year-old director of racecourse business at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, chosen as under secretary for education? Yes, Chen is a member of the government's advisory committee on teacher education and qualifications - but come on, just about every prominent businessman in Hong Kong is attached to one committee or another. Strange thought, but how about an educator for this position?

And why appoint banker Florence Hui Hiu-fai, 34, under secretary for home affairs? And what about Kitty Poon Kit, 45, assistant professor in Polytechnic University's department of applied social sciences, who will be under secretary for the environment. And then there is Yau Shing-mu, executive chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Times, who suddenly has acquired the expertise to assume the position of under secretary for transport and housing.

Anyone looking for the crazy logic to these appointments might focus, first, on the Central Policy Unit, a think-tank sponsored by the Hong Kong government of which Tam, Chen, Poon and Hui have all been members. In addition, the media credentials of Yau and Leung are welcome for their public relations potential. Poon, by the way, is also a columnist for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper.

Ultimately, the Tsang administration aims to build a unified front, with Beijing-friendly, media-savvy deputies and assistants playing an important role. Tellingly, none of the appointments to the two new political tiers tapped any member of the pan-democratic camp that occupies 25 of the 60 seats in Legco. Stung by this political slap in the face, the democrats have hit back by scoring political points over the nationality flap and calling for the salaries of each of the new appointees to be made public. The Democratic Party has even threatened to invoke special Legco powers to force disclosure of the salaries. But these are voices in the wilderness that, it seems, will play an increasingly marginalized role in the city's future.

The future is about loyalty to Beijing. Ironically, that is what has landed five of the eight new deputy ministers in hot water. The controversy started when the local Chinese-language press revealed that So holds a Canadian passport. Although the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, prohibits only principal officials and heads of disciplinary forces from holding foreign passports, So has responded to criticism with a vow to renounce his Canadian citizenship and declare total loyalty to Hong Kong and to China.

Subsequently, four other deputy ministers holding foreign passports are feeling the pressure to follow suit. Tam has already initiated the process of renouncing his British citizenship, but Poon (American), Julia Leung (British) and Gabriel Leung (Canadian) have not yet decided how to act. With So and Tam already making the move, however, the die has been cast.

Such patriotic loyalty tests may make perfect sense elsewhere, but they are complicated in Hong Kong, where, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, many people, especially the elite, sought foreign passports. The Basic Law recognizes that reality and clearly allows the under secretaries to retain their dual nationalities. With the Sichuan earthquake tragedy still unfolding and the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August, however, patriotism has reached new heights in the city, and the political climate has also changed.

The chief executive, who waited nearly two awkward weeks to respond to the outcry against the foreign passport holders among his new appointments, was clearly caught off guard by the controversy. Finally addressing the issue over the weekend while on a visit to Shanghai, he revealed the salaries paid to all 17 new appointees but refused to say who earned which salary because that would lead to "unnecessary comparisons and personnel management problems". He also defended the right of the appointees to retain their foreign citizenship. Citing the Basic Law, he was on firm legal ground with this defense, but it seems that, for many in Hong Kong, the letter of the law and the spirit of the times are in conflict.

Watch for another patriotic litmus test this week, when the perennial June 4 candlelight vigil is held in Victoria Park to commemorate those who died in the Tiananmen crackdown. Some of the eight new under secretaries have also admitted to attending the memorial in the past. You won't see them there this year. Last year's vigil drew 55,000 people, according to organizers. This year could be a big disappointment for them.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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