How to pass the buck in four easy steps

July 18, 2015 08:06
Residents in Kwai Luen Estate take water from taps on the ground floor after water samples in their flats failed lead tests. Photo: HKEJ

The lead poisoning scandal in public housing estates inadvertently confirms a number of things we already knew about the way this government operates.

First, every time a scandal like this comes to light, the government’s priority is to find a scapegoat, so as to insulate officials from shouldering any blame.

In this instance, the scapegoat is a contractor who installed the pipes that featured in the discovery of lead-contaminated water in public housing estates.

As ever, the government has focused on the least powerful player in this saga, to the extent that it originally tried to conceal the names of the project’s main contractors.

Clearly the subcontractor responsible for the plumbing work must shoulder some of the blame, but what of the numerous officials who were supposed to be monitoring his work?

What of the Water Supplies Department, which has responsibility for the safety of Hong Kong's water supply?

Moreover, why does the government say it only has limited resources for a water-testing program?

Could this be because officials simply don’t want more problems to come to light?

This brings us to the second rather typical outcome of this debacle, which is that the government plans to set up a committee to investigate all this.

The government loves committees, not least because their work can be drawn out well past the point when anyone remembers why they were established in the first place.

Thirdly, it cannot be a coincidence that this problem has emerged in a place that houses people of modest means.

Officials swear blind that they give equal priority to the interests of all sectors of society, but when it comes to matters like this -- be they housing issues, fire risks, treatment of the elderly etc., etc. -- it is the less well off who tend to be on the receiving end of the problem.

Fourthly, and rather repetitively, there is the bigger question of accountability.

Pesky legislators and district councilors who bombard officials with demands to account for their actions are routinely accused of wasting time.

In fact it was one of these pesky legislators, Helena Wong Pik-wan, whose diligence brought this matter to light.

The parts of the media that are still struggling to bring government to account are largely shunned by officials.

As for the great unwashed members of the public, well, seriously, who do they think they are?

Major-league criminal thwarted by brave bureaucrats

While the government moans about a lack of resources, it appears to have enough people employed in the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to send out a squad, yes, a squad to persecute a senior citizen accused of the ghastly crime of fixing people’s bikes in the street.

Suen Tak-fui was charged with obstruction in Tsang Tai Uk, near Sha Tin, for blocking a pavement with bicycle spare parts.

Apparently, Mr. Suen made many repairs without seeking any financial reward but earned as much as the scandalously high sum of HK$40 (US$5.16) per day when business was brisk.

The bureaucrats have done a fine job protecting the public from this outrageous behaviour and have wisely used a great deal of time and public resources to bring this man to justice.

Strangely, criminals, particularly those of a white-collar variety or, indeed, former members of the bureaucracy, cannot be dealt with in such an efficient manner.

Good boy CY gets top marks

During his latest visit to Hong Kong, the much traveled Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did his best impression of a schoolboy brandishing good exam results.

In the course of a 12-minute speech, he mentioned five times that his bosses in Beijing were highly satisfied with his performance.

Apparently Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the National People’s Congress, emphasized his satisfaction with how CY handled the (failed) attempt to get Beijing's electoral reform plan passed.

This is obviously very good news for Mr. Leung, who can never be accused of not working hard to please his bosses.

Whether it is such good news for the rest of Hong Kong is quite another question, not least because it has reignited speculation that Beijing is willing to contemplate a second term for Mr. Leung.

In many ways, this latest visit to Beijing underlines the bosses’ dilemma, because they cannot dump their hand-picked pupil, nor do they have much choice in the very narrow field of candidates who are likely to obtain their approval.

Only the most diehard optimists believe that Beijing is actively looking for a less polarizing figure or even a less hardline personality to run Hong Kong.

On the contrary, the leaders in Zhongnanhai may even genuinely believe that CY has been a great success and want him to stay on.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author