Hong Kong’s media, the newspapers in particular, may often seem at best trite and at worst as crude and sensationalist as their British tabloid equivalents. But where would the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s liberties be but for its free-wheeling, muck-raking role?
A few days of reporting by fiercely competitive journals has seen exposure of the willful disregard of the law by Henry Tang, Beijing’s pick as leading candidate for chief executive in a small-circle election in March.
In contravention of building regulations, a 2,000 square foot (186 square meter) basement for pool, gym, wine cellar and other amenities had been created under his house while he was serving as chief secretary for administration, the number two in the Hong Kong government.
Tang further undermined his credibility when required to explain himself at a press conference and ended up blaming his tearful wife for instigating the illegal construction at the house which they shared but was in her name.
In exposing Tang, the media also showed up the fundamental flaws in the system for selecting the territory’s chief executive.
Tang was the preferred choice of the Beijing faction which has been uppermost in decision-making about Hong Kong despite his minimal achievements in office.
As so often, Beijing preferred a princeling despite opinion polls which consistently showed him far behind the other Beijing-friendly candidate, C.Y. Leung, an articulate self-made professional from the private sector but distrusted by the property sector and some democrats.
Tang, billionaire son of a Shanghainese textile entrepreneur and who joined the government in 2002, was close to the small group of tycoons whose companies dominate Hong Kong’s property and utilities sectors.
He had been expected to enjoy the support of a majority of the 1,200 members of the electoral college, a body heavily weighted towards interest groups which follow Beijing’s lead—the almost non-existent agriculture and fisheries sectors have more votes than doctors and or lawyers.
Despite widespread demands for him to withdraw, Tang has continued his quest for the top job and gained the open support of the leading tycoons, including property magnates Li Ka-shing and the Kwok brothers of Sun Hung Kei and David Li of Bank of East Asia.
But such support has emphasized the sense of unfairness of the electoral system and added to allegations of collusion between the government and big business.
Although C.Y. Leung himself has long had close ties with Beijing and would be acceptable as chief executive if its preferred candidate is discredited and it declines to support an alternative.
However, Leung is feared by the property tycoons because of his desire to make changes in land and housing policies.
As a leading surveyor, he is more aware than most of how they have been manipulating the current system to their advantage. It is no coincidence that nine out the 10 richest Hong Kong people are property tycoons.
The Tang episode has also left in tatters Beijing’s plan for a controlled selection process which would offer debate and some choice but have a predetermined conclusion.
It can control many of those in the 1,200 strong election commission but not the news media which are free to report the facts about the candidates and their supporters.
The media has also highlighted the increasing politicization of Hong Kong’s civil service which is supposed to be neutral.
The government information service put out a press release clearly intended to support by smearing Leung with the suggestion that he had failed to declare a supposed conflict of interest with a Malaysian firm of architects over his participation in a design contest a decade ago.
The media was quick to follow up on this—and to find that on further investigation the allegation lacked substance. It thus became yet another example of the collusion, contrary to public interest, between the bureaucracy and influential groups, be they tycoons or other Beijing aligned groups. Opinion surveys have long shown that the public believes such collusion to be rife.
Hitherto, the established, Beijing-backed, interests had believed that public opinion could be by-passed and decisions, such as Tang’s selection, rammed through unrepresentative institutions such as the electoral committee.
But in the face of Tang’s persistent unpopularity, some in the Beijing camp were beginning to waiver even before the revelation of illegal structures.
Now, episode has laid bare not merely Tang’s inadequacies but those of a selection system which is not merely undemocratic but has failed to produce leaders worthy of Hong Kong’s global position.
In other ways, the media has helped expose some other potentially unhealthy relationships between senior officials and businessmen.
Only this week, it detailed an unannounced visit to Macau aboard a luxury yacht by the current chief executive Donald Tsang as guest of some prominent tycoons and including a banquet at a casino attended by no Macau officials but by various important but unsavory figures in the Macau gambling world.
Tsang attempted to cover his face when a photographer was spotted and quickly left the banquet.
So, Hong Kong should be thankful that the political stances of its print and online media remain diverse and that its journalists have traditions of fact-finding and querying authority.
They also have a natural inclination to resent the assumptions of those in or close to the government that they enjoy immunity from certain rules and laws ranging from minor infractions such as parking to major ones such as the wholesale flouting of land use laws in a territory where land is exceptionally expensive.
In doing so, the media has shown that freedom of expression, whether exercised by the media or by the public through opinion surveys or street demonstrations, can make for better governance than the authoritarian democracy found in some countries in southeast Asia and beyond where all have the vote but freedom of speech and assembly is limited and ruling parties live above the law.
At the same time, Hong Kong also shows that without greater democracy than it has been allowed, government easily becomes dominated by Beijing-approved cliques at the nexus of money and bureaucratic power.
So the Tang episode is both a triumph for Hong Kong and a pointer to how to improve.
Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a freelance columnist based in Hong Kong. He is a regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune.