Illegal structures scandalize highest levels of government

To Yiu Ming

[中文][Aug 2011 - The JournalistThe recent saga surrounding the illegal structures in the homes of politicians and top government officials has been more eye-catching than the news about the post-80s top earners.
This 'small house' for indigenous resident of the New Territories
 turned out to be five stories instead of three as stipulated by law.

For the former, the senior officials who have blatantly defied the law and corrupted political morality has further damaged the accountability of the SAR Government – the administration which its already struggling with its low popularity rating and appalling credibility.

The controversies were stirred up by a report from the Ombudsman in April which was critical of the prevalence of unauthorised building structures in the New Territories. Further probes by the media showed that some village leaders, lawmakers and other public figures had also put up unauthorized structures in their homes. It was shocking to find Undersecretary for the Environment Kitty Poon Kit herself was also on the list.

A wave of intensive media investigations has brought us to the conclusion that the problem of unauthorized structures has been grossly under-estimated. It is not confined to specific districts. In reality, the problem is city-wide and involving some of the most high-end districts, such as the Peak. The community was shocked to find that the problem involved not only the rich and famous, but also those who are at the highest levels of the administration – heads of the policy bureaus, secretaries (ministers), executive councillors and even the Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen himself.

Bright side of the issue

The most intriguing part was the involvement of Director of Buildings Au Choi-kai and Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung. Au is the head of the department which is tasked with cracking down on unauthorized structures. Suen was the Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands when an order was imposed on his property.

The impact of the media scrutiny is significant. Not only did the news coverage put pressure on those public figures to remove the unlawful structures from their properties, the government was also forced to send a message – loud and clear – about its determination to crack down on unauthorized structures regardless of the owner's social standing and background. Various political parties also stepped up scrutiny among their members, requesting them to report any unlawful structures in their homes.

Also under intensive public pressure, Kitty Poon and Michael Suen, who had tried to throw off blame, eventually made a public apologies for their errors. However, Au continued to defend his position. How could the public possibly believe that officers from Au’s own department could act fairly in assessing his case and eventually exempting him from statutory building restrictions?

However, we should also look on the bright side of the issue. Although journalists do not enjoy the same legal powers as the Ombudsman, the strength of their scrutiny proved to be very strong in drawing public attention to such wrongs, upholding justice, and consolidating the power of Hong Kong people to oversee the conduct of senior officials.

Government unable to uphold rule of law

The saga has brought up several key issues: Firstly, the controversy gave rise to concerns about the rule of law under which everyone should be equal. However, the government was silent when some villagers sought to justify their breach of the building rules. So, does the government’s attitude amount to giving special privileges to those people?

Secondly, Hong Kong people have started to question the ability of the government to uphold justice when it closes one eye selectively to blatant breaches of the law by certain privileged groups in society.

Thirdly, how could it be justified for the department to assess an application by its own director to change the building structure of his property in spite of rules already laid down? The whole process has completely ignored the conflict of interest and the principle of fairness.

Fourthly, how could it possible for a minister to completely defy a warning about the illegal structures on his property issued by his own department?
The investigation by the media disclosed more than just the extent of the problem of illegal structures. It also effectively alerted the public to a more serious social ill – the violation of justice and the inability of the government to uphold the law. Behind the news reports, the press has carried out its proper function of drawing public awareness to these wrongs, putting pressure on the government to return to the correct path and helping rebuild social order.

Translated by Patsy Moy