Hong Kong: The Airport Debacle May Play Into Beijing's Hands

The nightmarish debut of Hong Kong's $20 billion Chek Lap Kok airport has been one big public-relations debacle. Tales of lost baggage, computer bugs, and decaying cargo have made the former British colony the laughing stock of Asia. For shipping magnate and Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the affair is raising a political stench that may linger long after the last crate of bad fish is hauled away.

Tung's flawed crisis management has allowed his critics to go on the political attack. With popularly elected members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council leading the charge, they are demanding a full inquiry into the airport fiasco. Academics, business leaders, and pro-Beijing politicians are joining the outcry and insisting that Tung must change the way he runs Hong Kong.

The attacks are an acute embarrassment to the politically inept Tung, who has shunned the spotlight since the airport's chaotic debut. Tung's withdrawal, however, has left the hitherto highly respected civil service, led by Anson Chan, exposed to damage from the legislators. "[The civil servants] are not accountable to anyone," gripes firebrand politician Emily Lau.

COSSETED MANDARINS. A legacy of British rule, the city's corps of 180,000 bureaucrats underpins Hong Kong's special status in its "one country, two systems" deal with Beijing. As professional civil servants rather than political appointees, they are supposedly less susceptible to heavy-handed pressure from Beijing. They are paid high salaries, housing allowances, and pensions to make them incorruptible, unlike their colleagues in such places as Indonesia or China itself.

Hong Kong's cosseted mandarins attract envy that makes them a choice political target. Critics contend that bureaucrats eager to please Beijing rushed to open the airport--before its complicated systems had been fully tested--to coincide with a visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in July. They received further ammunition on July 14, when corruption busters arrested a dozen people and charged them with graft in an airport-related project.

Also damaging to the bureaucrats has been an almost biblical series of plagues that has struck Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese rule last year. First came a deadly strain of bird flu, then a calamitous wave of water pollution. Poor handling of those crises has shaken public confidence in the city's governing elite. "We are seeing the weaknesses of the civil servants exposed," says political scientist Joseph Y.S. Cheng at City University of Hong Kong.

Except for extraordinary misconduct, the bureaucrats can't be fired. But despite all the mistakes, no senior civil servant has been disciplined either. That angers Hong Kong voters, who are suffering as the once buoyant local economy crashes, doubling unemployment rates and halving real estate prices.

Voters already punished Tung in May Legislative Council elections by awarding most seats open to universal suffrage to his prodemocracy opponents. Now, with another election looming in 2000, legislators from both major camps will try to score easy points by attacking the civil service. The pro-China group paints the civil service as an overhang of British rule, while the prodemocracy crowd sees them as autocratic.

It's a dangerous game, particularly for the democrats. With his troubles mounting, Tung may soon need to show Beijing that its opponents aren't gaining overwhelming popularity in Hong Kong. He may now drop his carefully cultivated veneer of impartiality and move openly into the pro-China camp. If he joins the attacks on the civil servants to improve his standing, the city will slip further under Beijing's control.