Obeying the law is only for the 'little people'

January 12, 2018 18:00
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam (left) is doggedly defending her new justice secretary Teresa Cheng (right) amid a controversy over illegal structures at the latter's home. Photo: HKEJ

There's one law for the rich and influential and another for everyone else – how often have we heard that said and why on earth is the Chief Executive Carrie Lam trying to turn herself into a pale imitation of the infamous "Queen of Mean", Leona Helmsley, the New York billionaire who declared that paying taxes was for the 'little people'. Ms Lam comes dangerously close to echoing this sentiment in her apparent belief that obeying the law is only for the little people.

This is why she is doggedly defending Teresa Cheng, the newly appointed justice secretary, who admits to have broken the law but maintains that in her high-profile life she was too busy to pay attention to possible infringements of the law.

Not only does she admit that the adjoining properties of herself and her husband are riddled with illegal structures but she tries to explain it away by saying that they are somehow not her fault because she inherited them from the previous owners.

As Hong Kong's most senior law enforcement official she must know that there is absolutely no defense in law on these grounds. Nor is it vaguely possible that as a qualified civil engineer, as well as a senior lawyer, she does not understand the concept of what qualifies as being an illegal structure. She served for six years as the Chairwoman of the Buildings Appeal Tribunal Panel – so any last scintilla of doubt about her awareness of this issue must be abandoned.

At the time of writing she has made three attempts to explain herself – she says that she promptly reported the problem to the Chief Executive, that she was too busy to deal with this matter and that, er, she was not alert enough.

The first of these explanations is a downright lie as she only fessed up to the problem once it had been publicized in the Apple Daily newspaper. As for the other 'explanations', well they have become even more complicated since it has emerged that she signed a legal agreement in the form of a mortgage document for the properties, declaring that they did not contain illegal structures – again she maintains that she was far too busy to read this long document.

Ordinary folk who get hauled into court and try out this 'too busy' defense are given short shrift by the judges who rightly consider that negligence does not mitigate a crime, indeed in the case of an officer of the court, such as Ms Cheng, it adds to the gravity of the offence.

The Chief Executive has sort of acknowledged that Ms Cheng's attempts at a defense are somewhat short of the mark but she hopes 'everyone treats this matter with greater tolerance'. Maybe she has in mind the kind of tolerance the administration demonstrated in appealing for higher penalties to be imposed on Occupy student leaders or maybe it is of the kind that is now being attempted in the effort to try and bankrupt the six legislators expelled from office.

The bottom line is that the establishment is closing ranks to protect their own. The usual hangers-on from the sidelines are being mobilized to back them in this attempt. This is how arrogant and non-accountable governments usually work. Hong Kong's Mickey Mouse version of an authoritarian government suffers from the fact that the people it rules are not stupid nor are they ill-informed. They know full well that if they were caught up in an issue of this kind the consideration of 'greater tolerance' would not apply to them.

Meanwhile, and uncomfortably linked to this matter, in as much as it concerns some parts of the community being above the law, is the call from the Junior Police Officers Association for law enforcers to be exempt from the law while carrying out their duties.

Read that sentence above again to be reminded of its absurdity and dangers, yet not a single member of the administration has had the guts to reject such a dubious proposition. The call for immunity from the law arises from the conviction of former police superintendent Frankly Chu for assaulting a bystander during the Occupy protests.

The solidarity that police officers share is understandable but their desire to place themselves above the law is not. Indeed many serving police officers do not share this view; unfortunately they are getting no support from either their own leaders or anyone in government.

How all this will pan out… I shudder to think.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author