Patriotism and piles of cash

December 03, 2020 06:00
Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong’s first post-colonial chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, refused to live in Government House, believing the mansion had bad feng shui. He converted his own Mid-Levels home and an adjacent rented apartment at taxpayers’ expense into his official residence.

Successor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen had no qualms about living in Government House. He even had a pond built for his beloved fish. I still remember him feeding and talking to his fish when he invited me to Government House.

Leung Chun-ying grew vegetables instead when he became chief executive. I was privileged to sample some of his home-grown veggies when he invited me to lunch at Government House.

The current occupant of Government House, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is a self-confessed workaholic who loves to spend all her time working. US President Donald Trump has given her even more work to do – counting money.

I would gladly become a workaholic too if it means I had lots of money to count. Sadly, journalists are overworked but underpaid. Not so for Lam. She earns over HK$400,000 a month, more than the annual salary of frontline journalists who braved police teargas during last year’s protests.

She admitted last week she has piles of cash at home after the US imposed sanctions on her for eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms. Banks had no choice but to close her accounts or face sanctions themselves. Even China-owned banks distanced themselves from her.

That baffles me because Lam spends most of her time as a workaholic proving her patriotism to her mainland masters. What baffles me more is how the government, which keeps taxpayers’ money in banks, manages to pay her salary in cash.

The government department responsible for paying her salary must withdraw it from a bank and deliver the cash to her. Would that bank and the government department be violating US sanctions for dealing with a sanctioned person? Something to wonder about.

I am not sure if Government House has dismantled Tsang’s fish pond and Leung’s vegetable plot. If not, then Lam, as a workaholic, can supervise their dismantling to make way for her own imprint at Government House – a Hong Kong-style Fort Knox.

For those who don’t know, Fort Knox is a military base in the state of Kentucky adjacent to a well-guarded vault where the US government stores much of its gold reserves. With her piles of cash, Lam should seriously consider a vault at Government House.

Many Hongkongers mistakenly believe Lam’s piles of cash began accumulating only after the US sanctioned her in August. They forget Lam has been a highly-paid government official for four decades. Unlike many other officials, she doesn’t invest in property. She told me in a TV interview she has no property in Hong Kong, only a small flat in Zhongshan.

That means she must have many millions in her bank accounts. Normally, when a bank cuts a person’s account, it must return all the money to that person. Lam could have invested some savings in stocks, but if these stocks have US links, she much cash them out too.

She has a year and a half left as chief executive. The talk is she wants another term. That means six and a half years of over HK$400,000 a month. It would be folly not to have a Government House Fort Knox for such a massive pile of cash. Another option is to invest in Greater Bay Area property to prove her patriotism.

With her piles of cash, she can easily afford grand mainland mansions without bank mortgages. To further prove her patriotism, she should urge her husband and two sons to give up their British passports and live in her Greater Bay Area mansions in the same way she is encouraging Hongkongers to move to the mainland.

Patriotism can reap many rewards, including going back on your word. Lam made a 2017 campaign promise to amend Hong Kong’s anti-bribery law so that the chief executive would not be exempt from it. She backtracked last week, saying Beijing would handle it if she violated bribery laws.

That sounds like rule of man to me. Lam loves to lecture Hong Kong’s protesters by saying no one is above the law. Now we know that doesn’t include her. Hongkongers who break the law must defend themselves in local courts. Lam only needs to defend herself to her Beijing masters who have showered praise on her.

Lam insists everything she has done is for Hong Kong’s good. True leaders don’t judge their performance. They let the people judge. Every poll has shown Lam is Hong Kong’s worst leader.

Another sanctioned official is constitutional and mainland affairs secretary Erick Tsang Kwok-wai who proudly displays a portrait of President Xi Jinping in his office and has expressed his disdain for the West. His HK$300,000-plus a month pay means his pile of cash is less than Lam’s but it’s still a sizeable sum.

I suggest he invests in rare Xi portraits and memorabilia. It is both a patriotic and wise investment because its value, even if it’s only patriotic value, will definitely grow.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.