Time for Tung to stop this abuse of power

South China Morning Post  |  Jul 25, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

The Chief Executive should fire his meddling special assistant Andrew Lo, says

By Sin-ming Shaw

TUNG CHEE-HWA is a proud traditionalist. Now he has a chance to start a new tradition, under which those in power take responsibility for their actions, by asking Andrew Lo Cheung-on, his senior special assistant, to leave.

Mr Lo has been behaving as if he were the consigliere to the Godfather - the "special adviser" to Marlon Brando's Don Corleone immortalised by Robert Duval in the classic Hollywood movie. Mr Lo disgraces the noble profession of serving the public by abusing his position of power.

He grossly overplayed his hand by visiting the University of Hong Kong to relay his concerns to the vice-chancellor about the quality and methodology of polling expert, Professor Robert Chung Ting-yiu.

If Vice-Chancellor Cheng Yiu-chung had acted like a true scholar, he would have answered Mr Lo with a long silent look. If Mr Lo had persisted, Professor Cheng should have calmly told him that whether Dr Chung's work was good or mediocre was a proper subject for open, critical debate by the pollster's peers, and that Mr Lo would be welcome to participate by submitting a well-argued paper for publication. Government officials around the world regularly argue their views in quality journals.

Instead, Professor Cheng, who is well known for his ability to mix with the powerful, sacrificed sound academic principles to remain in their good books. Soon afterwards, Professor Cheng's deputy, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Wong Siu-lun, twice called Dr Chung in for a "friendly chat".

This case was not the first in which Mr Lo used his position to influence non-government organisations. Dr Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, Vice-Chancellor of Chinese University, said yesterday that Mr Lo had also met him to discuss the university's polling work.

While officials around the world often feel they get unfair treatment by the press and complain loudly, Mr Lo went beyond mere words. He took action in a way that is most disturbing in a society where the rule of law is still taken seriously.

The Asian Wall Street Journal reported last week that last autumn, Mr Lo asked several of Hong Kong's largest real-estate companies to withhold advertising from the Apple Daily. The Chief Executive is known to enormously dislike that mass-market daily because of its persistent criticism of his policies.

In response to the Journal article, Mr Lo denied any such action. However, the essential facts of what he did had been well known by the foreign press since last winter.

The reason the story was not published sooner was because the real-estate executives involved would not initially corroborate the story for the record. They believed Mr Lo was carrying out Mr Tung's order. It was also believed some Executive Council members were supportive of Mr Lo's action.

Advertising was withheld from the Apple Daily for three months before it resumed late last year. There were two main reasons why the boycott was eventually lifted. Late last year several foreign reporters began to research the incident. Some called Mr Lo for a comment. Mr Lo did not return calls. He would have been correct in assuming that Mr Tung's credibility would have been severely damaged if the boycott, then in progress, had got into the world press.

The Apple Daily's senior management, astonished by the blatant pressure, approached several Beijing confidants to inquire whether the boycott had been initiated by Beijing. Some pleaded ignorance, others were embarrassed. The fact was that Beijing had no such policy. Nor were the top leaders aware of the boycott, though the former premier, Li Peng, shares Mr Tung's distaste of Apple Daily.

Saner minds in Mr Tung's administration prevailed and the boycott was eventually lifted allowing the property developers to feel politically safe to advertise in it again. The paper has the second biggest circulation in Hong Kong, and property developers understandably wanted to reach as many potential buyers as possible by placing advertisements in it.

After Mr Lo's well-reported intrusion into academia, some of the real-estate tycoons who were circumspect nine months ago must have realised that a cancer was growing in Hong Kong that could destroy its basic fabric. They finally decided to speak to the press.

But several questions remain unanswered. Did Mr Lo act alone, without the backing of other senior members of Mr Tung's inner circle? Who else in the Government knew about the boycott?

Mr Tung's late father was a legendary capitalist, even if his first born son sometimes acts like a paternalistic communist. Mr Tung must know that when a private company in Hong Kong no longer feels free to choose who to do business with and how to do it, then this Chinese society, still the freest (so far) in the People's Republic, is on its way to becoming just another mainland city. Beijing surely does not need another one.

Mr Lo would be disingenuous to insist that what he did on his own did not carry the power associated with his office. In the real world, proximity to power is power. Few individuals have Mr Lo's access to the Chief Executive and Mr Lo is well aware of his privileged position.

A senior official also loses his "personal" capacity in what he does. That is why government officers must take extra care in what they do and say even privately, let alone publicly, for the public generally considers what officials do as an act of the Government.

Mr Tung claims he never ordered Mr Lo to organise a boycott against the Apple Daily, nor that he asked Mr Lo to talk to anyone at the University of Hong Kong about Dr Chung. Since Mr Lo has done both, the Chief Executive must make it clear that he disapproves.

Mr Tung must not let the issue be clouded by his well-known tendency to confuse private loyalty to his staff with his responsibility to the seven million SAR citizens who pay his salary. Mr Lo is a public servant, not Mr Tung's private employee. Mr Tung must convince an already jaded public about his own integrity by firing Mr Lo, whose behaviour has betrayed the public trust as well as Mr Tung's. He should reassure Hong Kong that no official in his administration will be allowed to intimidate any citizens.

If Mr Tung does not do so, then the world would be correct to assume that Mr Lo was in fact carrying out Mr Tung's wishes. If Mr Lo acted on his own without prior approval by his boss, then the Chief Executive, by letting Mr Lo keep his job, would be in effect taking responsibility for what his underling has done. There is no reason for Mr Tung to do so. Mr Lo must go.

Sin-ming Shaw is a commentator on current affairs and a visiting scholar at Harvard University

 Back to home page