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In the months before Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, doom and gloom scenarios about the British colony’s future were a growth industry. Some scribes imagined People’s Liberation Army soldiers roaming the streets but there was also the theory that a thriving financial centre such as Hong Kong was similar to a well-made Swiss watch. Beijing, sceptics said, would not understand how the delicate machinery of Hong Kong worked – with its independent judiciary, free press and squeaky clean civil service. Beijing, however, mostly left Hong Kong to run itself. The city’s appeal as a de facto Swiss banking centre where the money of China’s wealthy can be parked and equity issued for lumbering Chinese state-owned behemoths has not lost its lustre.

However, Hong Kong’s own leadership has of late seemed determined to pull apart the Swiss watch. A former justice secretary recently suggested referring a controversial case to Beijing instead of allowing the issue to be put before Hong Kong’s judiciary.

Could the squeaky clean image be in question as well as judicial independence? This spring, Donald Tsang, the city’s de facto mayor, took a ride on a tycoon’s private jet to the Thai beach resort of Phuket. As Mr Tsang is a hard-working civil service veteran, and former financial secretary, this came as a shock.

Then, last week, it was discovered that on an official visit to Brazil he had stayed in the presidential suite of the Royal Tulip Brasília Alvorada hotel, which cost $6,900 a night. Mr Tsang said that Chile – which he also visited – and Brazil may count China as their number one trading partner but they had not made full use of Hong Kong as the “most important loans syndication centre in the east”. He described his business trips as “serious. We (plan) it in advance, we usually have a purpose and we have our own strategy.”

Mr Tsang has referred the matter to the director of the city’s audit commission, who will examine whether his official travel conforms to the “conservative and moderate principle”. This approach to governance is in the tradition of that great caricature of the British civil servant, Sir Humphrey Appleby, in the 1980s TV series Yes Minister. It is evidence that Britain’s civil service traditions live on in Hong Kong.

One CEO of a Hong Kong company last week was using words such as “sclerotic” and “beleaguered” to describe the government’s dealings with the city legislature, but when it came to corruption he was adamant the city government had nothing to be ashamed of. He has a point. While the arrest in late March of a former head of the civil service and two billionaire brothers who run the city’s largest property company prompted banner headlines, it is hard to think of many cities in Asia where an arm of the government would take on such heavyweights. (The three are on bail and have not been charged with any offence.)

Official wheels turn

Citizens’ nosy scrutiny of public officials’ travel seems to be an infectious disease in south China these days, with residents of the provincial capital Guangzhou, a couple of hours from Hong Kong, raising repeated questions about officials using government cars for personal use. A Mr Ou has become a celebrity of this cause. When Mr Ou went to the petition office of the local people’s congress a few weeks’ ago, officials were so alarmed to see him come with a reporter they closed the door – on his fingers.

In the city of Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong, officials last week were grilled by reporters on the number of government cars being used in the city. The man from the development and reform commission fobbed the question off to police. Finally, Mr Yu of the city’s transport committee said that before he could give an answer, it was important to “define what government cars are”.

Sir Humphrey lives – even in communist China.

Run like clockwork

In Hong Kong at least, day to day dealings with the lower levels of the civil service still run like, er, clockwork. Expatriates moving to the city are pleasantly surprised that being issued a residency card at the immigration office takes all of 30 minutes. I returned after a decade to the street where I had lived to find the same postman. He is still as indefatigable about delivering incorrectly addressed letters or delivering parcels on Saturday when one is likely to be home.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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