Birthday party row hits Hong Kong chief

Plans to honour a senior political adviser in the former British colony have upset taxpayers, reports Stephen Vines
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The Independent Online
The biggest public relations setback for Tung Chee-hwa since he took over Hong Kong four months ago has not been over plans to curtail democracy or labour rights, but over a birthday party.

The Hong Kong chief executive's plan to honour his oldest adviser's 80th birthday has blown up in his face, filling newspaper columns and swamping radio talk shows. Mr Tung himself seemed oblivious of the fuss, dismissing the whole affair as a "misunderstanding". For his critics, however, this response has further demonstrated the chief executive's inability to distinguish between his private and public roles.

Mr Tung had decided to throw an 80th birthday party for Sir Sze-yuen Chung, or Mr Chung, as he sometimes likes to be known, now that British titles are no longer in fashion. Sir Sze-yuen loyally served the colonial administration and was the senior member of the cabinet advising past governors. Switching sides just in time, he is now providing the same services for the new regime.

The trouble with Mr Tung's plan was that taxpayers were expected to foot the bill and the venue was Government House, the home of former governors, abandoned by Mr Tung partly because he believes it has bad feng shui and partly because he is wary of colonial associations. One of Mr Tung's cabinet members tried lamely to excuse his boss by saying that Mr Tung was entitled to entertain who he liked there because his predecessor, Chris Patten, had played host to all kinds of celebrities, from Kevin Costner to Helmut Kohl.

Government House, however, was also Mr Patten's home. Mr Tung owns another perfectly good home which is being expanded and refitted at public expense. He therefore has the opportunity to make a clear distinction between official and personal entertaining - especially since Hong Kong's legislature voted him a bigger hospitality budget than Mr Patten's, on the grounds that Chinese guests cost more than others to entertain.

Sir Sze-yuen, who finally ended the row by turning down the invitation, managed to do so in a manner which only deepened the controversy. He insisted that his birthday celebration was not personal, because other cabinet members would attend.

As a businessman, Sir Sze-yuen likes to present issues in management- speak. "If you have learned and read any personnel management books," he instructed the media, "you will probably be aware of that kind of technique", by which he meant social gatherings designed to win "loyalty and co-operation".

But Mr Tung's cabinet is not supposed to be a subsidiary of a big corporation, and to hear its most senior member describe it in these terms only served to cause further dismay. The most damning statement, however, came from Mr Tung himself, who reluctantly accepted Sir Sze-yuen's decision to scrap the party. "Public opinion," he said, "sometimes says good, sometimes says bad. I do what I believe to be right."

In other words, the chief executive made it clear that he need pay no attention to public sentiment. So he should not be worried by an opinion poll which showed that his handling of the affair led to a drop in his approval rating.