How the government works in the dark

December 28, 2018 17:30
Hong Kong officials are often accused of withholding important information from the public, using some lame pretext or excuse for the secrecy. Photo: Bloomberg

The dark shadow of the black box looms ever larger over the operations of the Hong Kong government as new revelations are made of important information withheld from the public, as officials evade, twist and sometimes tell outright lies in order to obscure matters which really should be placed in the public domain.

A good example of this recently came to light thanks to the diligence and perseverance of the news agency FactWire which has been trying to get the Housing Society to name the 12 external advisors appointed to work on their study concerning the provision of additional housing within the country park boundaries.

This is most definitely a matter of public interest but the government controlled Housing Society decided that it was perfectly acceptable to operate within a black box as there was no need for the public to know how it was conducting its affairs. The Ombudsman – one of the few government bodies to have emerged from the fog of secrecy with its reputation intact- has now ruled that the Housing Society was wrong and that the names should be disclosed. Let’s see whether this will lead to action because, lamentably, the Ombudsman’s rulings do not have the force of law.

This may be considered to be a relatively trivial example of official secrecy but it has the merit of encapsulating all the issues at stake. First, the Housing Society is studying a highly controversial issue and some heavyweight property developers, not to mention influential members of the reptilian Heung Yee Kuk, have strong vested interests in the outcome of this work.

Second, precisely because this is a controversial issue and has, separately, been reviewed by the land supply taskforce, the public is engaged in this matter and expects transparency in the way it is handled not least because the taskforce review found that the least popular option for land supply was impinging on the country parks.

Third is the Housing Society’s blithe assumption that it can get away with operating in a black box because this is precisely what it instinctively does.

Somewhat higher in the political agenda are the shenanigans surrounding the decision by the Department of Justice not to initiate legal action against the former chief executive Leung Chun-ying over his undisclosed HK$50 million payoff from the Australian engineering company UGL.

As matters stand the rights and wrongs of this matter remain tightly locked in the government’s black box. By providing misleading (a polite word for mendacious) assurances that the Department of Justice does not have a practice of calling in independent legal advice on matters like this, it justified the absence of such advice in this case and a four-year ICAC investigation was brought to a rapid halt by the DOJ.

Teresa Cheng, the Secretary for Justice, was conveniently on leave when her department issued a terse information-free statement saying that the investigation had been dropped. When she came back on December 26 Cheng was in combative mood castigating reporters for their unruly questioning but singularly failing to supply any useful information aside from the excuse that she had booked her leave a month in advance. If this was so why did the department not wait for her return before issuing what was clearly a highly controversial statement requiring the department’s head to be on the premises?

No one is, or should be, above the law but in the case of the most senior figures in government there is an added imperative to ensure that not only is justice done but should be seen to be done. That key principle seems to have been lost here.

That brings us to the whole murky issue of accountability. By definition public accountability cannot be achieved in secret, so it's worrisome that when sensitive decisions are made about, for example, denying a work permit to a foreign journalist for what can only have been political reasons, the government’s first response was a refusal to explain its actions.

This was followed by an outright lie about not commenting on individual cases, yet within weeks of not commenting on the Victor Mallet case, these same officials came out to comment on the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who is detained in Canada and, according to the authorities in Ottawa, possessed three HKSAR passports, unlike mere ordinary citizens who are only allowed to hold one.

In a more recent case a temporary work permit was denied to Freddy Lim, a member of a Taiwanese hard rock band. Lim is also an advocate for Taiwanese independence. As ever no public reason was given for this decision but in a letter to the local sponsors of the visa application the Immigration Department wrote that Lim had been denied entry on grounds that he ‘did not possess a special skill, knowledge or experience of value’.

No wonder this sort of nonsense was not intended to be made public, otherwise questions might well be asked about whether the newfound musical expertise of the bureaucrats was going to apply to all the very large number of other musicians playing gigs in Hong Kong.

And so it goes on as officials duck and dive to evade and avoid accountability. In this they are greatly assisted by their allies in Legco where, thanks to a series of expulsions, they now have a comfortable majority in the chamber ensuring that one of the key roles of legislators: holding the government to account, can be disregarded. The swaggering new pro-government majority never misses a chance to ensure that officials are not called to account. This is probably the most serious consequence of the Legco purge which is far from over.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author