Back in 2002, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa marked his second term with one of the biggest political shake-ups in Hong Kong’s history — the introduction of the principal officials accountability system.
Seemingly convinced that Hong Kong’s problems and dissatisfaction with his first five years in office could be traced to organizational and administrative flaws, Tung put an end to the days where top officials were “untouchable” civil servants as they could keep their posts even if they screwed up on the job.
With great fanfare and grand promises for a better and more effective government, Tung announced that all of his principal officials were to be political appointees chosen by the chief executive and would report directly to him.
The professional fate of these ministerial secretaries would hinge on their performance.
Right from the start, there was much debate whether this political framework ever had a chance to succeed.
But various instances in the earlier years of the accountability system put it to the test.
There was Antony Leung’s Lexusgate scandal which forced him to cut short his tenure as financial secretary because he had bought a brand new Lexus just weeks before he raised the tax on new vehicles.
New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip also abruptly ended her decades-long public service career in 2003.
She left her job as security chief for “personal reasons” but common sense suggests that the mass protests in 2003, which foiled the government’s attempts to introduce national security laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law, played a prominent role in her resignation.
Funny enough, Ip and Leung resigned on the same day.
Although they were not officially pushed out of the job, the writing was clearly on the wall.
Even though Tung didn’t officially give them the sack, the rules for the accountability system set out that officials may have to step down for “serious failures” relating to their portfolio or for grave personal misconduct such as conflict of interest.
Let’s fast-forward 12 years, with Tung’s protege, Leung Chun-ying at the helm and, once again, we have two policy secretaries who left their posts on the same day.
Whether they chose to jump or were pushed remains shrouded in mystery.
The sudden departures of former home affairs secretary Tsang Tak-shing and ex-civil service secretary Paul Tang reek of suspicion.
Having just happened out of the blue, no one apart from CY Leung has a clue as to the real reasons why both of them had to go so suddenly.
Only a fool would believe that Tsang was so relieved to finally enjoy “early retirement” or fall for Tang’s apparent eagerness to spend more time with his family.
We’ve heard the rumors about how Beijing and CY are unhappy with Tsang’s failure to indoctrinate our younger generation about the virtues of the Chinese Communist Party and his shortcomings in preventing the city’s youth from taking part in last year’s democracy protest movement.
There are also murmurs they are equally unhappy about Tang for failing to keep the civil service onside.
But that alone doesn’t explain why their removals had to happen this week rather than in the immediate aftermath of the protests, or why they happened simultaneously.
I stand to be corrected but I cannot recall instances where the actions of Tsang and Tang amount to either grave personal misconduct or a serious failure.
The accountability system also provides an opportunity for the civil service secretary to rejoin the civil service, age permitting.
But was Paul Tang, who is three years shy from turning 60, ever given that opportunity?
CY Leung has the answer to that question, but we can only assume that the answer is “no”.
I can, however, think of one clear-cut case for a deserved removal under the government’s own rules — Development Secretary Paul Chan.
His conflict-of-interest row involving the ownership of farmland in the New Territories, his sub-divided flats scandal (which he squarely blamed on his wife) and his drink-driving should have landed him in hot water.
But he lacked the decency to resign, insisting there was nothing wrong with his integrity and CY Leung continues to stand by his beleaguered buddy despite such gross shortcomings on Chan’s part.
Perhaps the most baffling aspect of last week’s removals is CY’s comical decision to replace Tsang Tak-shing with former constitutional affairs undersecretary and DAB stalwart Lau Kong-wah.
Out of the whole bunch of government officials, Lau is probably the most pitiful and pathetic.
He spent almost HK$5 million dollars on his 2012 Legislative Council campaign, making him the biggest spender in Legco election history, only to lose his seat.
He became the butt of online jokes after a picture of his campaign poster being obscured by a rubbish bin started making the rounds.
His appointment to the government as an undersecretary for constitutional and mainland affairs was seen as a consolation prize for his election defeat (even though it pays a lot more than a legislator’s salary).
And to top it all off, the rubbish bin image became his omnipresent online meme after he stayed silent during tense two-hour talks over political reform between the government and pro-democracy student leaders in October last year.
In announcing Lau’s appointment, the CY Leung praised him for his “ample political and administrative experience”.
But this begs the question as to what exactly has Lau Kong-wah done to earn his stripes for this post?
In contrast, Undersecretary for Home Affairs Florence Hui would have been a more pragmatic choice to fill Tsang’s shoes given her wealth of experience in this portfolio.
Instead, CY’s choice of Lau once again proves his administration’s total lack of credibility.
One of the goals that Tung Chee-hwa’s government had in mind when setting up the accountability system was to “select the most suitable persons to take up principal official positions to serve the community and to enhance governance”.
I wonder if Tung genuinely thought his political brainchild would serve Hong Kong well, or whether he foresaw that his successors, let alone his protege, would pervert the system to suit their whim.
But one thing is for certain: the accountability system has now become a government game of musical chairs where some players don’t get a seat and others do, depending on whether they dance to CY’s tune.
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