Hong Kong Faces Tragedy with a Double Standard

The Hong Kong government’s very different responses to two tragedies involving Hong Kong citizens provide a sharp look at official hypocrisy with a racist tinge. They are the August 2010 deaths of eight of the territory’s tourists at the hands of a lone gunman but featuring a botched rescue attempt by the Manila police, and the deaths of 39 Hong Kong citizens in a ferry sinking off Lamma island on Oct. 1, 2012 – China’s national day.

The first issue was finally settled Wednesday with the acceptance of a dubious apology from the disgraced former President and current Manila mayor Joseph Estrada (conspicuously not Alfredo Lim, who was the mayor at the time). Payments also were made to the victims’ families, said by Estrada to total around HK$20 million.

Estrada was accompanied by two national government officials, Philippine National Police director Alan Purisma and Secretary to the Cabinet Jose Almendras. They offered “most sorrowful regret and profound sympathy” and the government said those responsible for the failure of the rescue were being held accountable.

The Hong Kong government had been demanding an apology from President Benigno S. Aquino III and had not only issued a black travel alert against the Philippines – putting it on a par with Syria as a dangerous place to visit – but imposed visa restrictions on visiting officials and threatened further sanctions, perhaps against the employment of Philippine domestic helpers.

Although the Manila police made a mess of their rescue attempt, there is no precedent for presidents apologizing for the actions of lone individuals, let alone to a non-sovereign state. Although the victims’ families had reasonable grounds for demanding compensation, the actions of the Hong Kong government, and numerous local politicians, made it appear that Chinese people expect other Asians to grovel to them when there is no record of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments apologizing for deaths caused by their citizens even when government officials were more directly to blame than in the the Manila bus case.

Further evidence of this double standard came just one day after the Estrada settlement with the release of the government’s report into the Lamma ferry disaster, when a Hong Kong and Kowloon Ferry collided with a passenger ship on its way to watch national day fireworks. The report acknowledged very serious failings on the part of the Marine Department responsible for ensuring the safe design, construction and operation of the ferry, which sank rapidly following the collision. It found 17 officials including at the directorate level guilty of misconduct. However none of these individuals was named, the government claiming this could not be done because police were still pursuing possible criminal charges.

However, this is widely seen as yet another bureaucratic cover-up. It is almost exactly a year since an independent inquiry appointed by the government and headed by a high court judge released its 270 page report after hearing from 113 witnesses and receiving a vast amount of expert evidence.

Most of this report was published and its conclusions were damning: The large number of deaths following what seemed a moderate collision in clear conditions was blamed not only on the coxswains of the vessels but at least as much on the fact that the vessel which sank was not constructed according to specifications on several separate counts and not properly equipped or manned. This could only have been because of incompetence on the part of several different officials, or collusion with the builders or owners.

The first inquiry was completed and published seven months after the accident. It has taken the government another year to come up with its own report, most of which has not been released. Charges of 39 counts of homicide were long ago laid against the coxswains of both vessels. But 18 months after the tragedy the police are supposedly still investigating officials! This suggests that the police took no action following the independent inquiry but waited for the bureaucracy’s own report.

As of now it looks unlikely that any criminal charges will be laid against officials, and that the several officials who have since retired will escape any punishment or loss of their generous pensions.

Nor has there been any action against the owner of the vessels other than meaningless fines of HK$4,500 and HK$5,000 respectively for breaching manning rules. The vessel which sank was owned by HK Electric, part of the empire of Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing.

Quite clearly even from its own report, let alone the independent one which preceded it, the Hong Kong government has more direct responsibility for 39 deaths than the Philippine government for eight. Yet has there been an apology from chief executive CY Leung, let alone from president Xi or his predecessor? As for the victims’ families, they are still waiting for compensation from the government for its major role in the deaths of the 39 passengers.