BEIJING - “Power should be locked up in a cage...” has always been the spirit of Hong Kong's legal tradition. All its government agencies regard this as their driving principle and guidance.

Ahead of the March 25th election, candidates campaigning to become Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive have all been under severe scrutiny from the Hong Kong press. Take Henry Tang for instance. Two weeks ago, rumor had it that Mr. Tang had constructed an illegal underground palace under his residence without getting the planning board's permission. So what did the press do? They hired cranes to look over the high walls of his mansion to get a better view.

If you were to ask local media executives in Hong Kong why they'd go to such lengths for such a report, the question itself would surprise them. “This election is a big event for Hong Kong," they would respond. "All vital information related to civil servants and to Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive should be reported.”

Likewise, Hong Kong citizens have an unending appetite for details and discussion as to how much Donald Tsang, the current Chief Executive and a rival candidate of Mr. Tang, would have paid for taking various luxurious cruises to Thailand provided by his rich friends -- or if he really did pay for his tours, as he claimed.

In Hong Kong, the exercise of power and policy-making has to inform the public and follow a certain procedure. It also has a legislative Council that questions public policy decisions. Legislators have the power to hold an emergency questioning session to ask governmental officials how they intend to respond to some urgent problem.

In turn, the officials have to describe and review the work that has been done, and are always expected to stick with the objective truth. This “objective truth” means they have to respond exactly to the question they have been asked, according to the data and the facts, so they can convince the legislative member who has raised the question that they are acting competently and correctly. During the whole process, any press reporter or citizen has the right to be present in the audience.

Lessons in democracy

Generally speaking, in a democratic society, public authority has a set formula as to how it sends out information and responds to questions. The media hence need not be always obsessed by what is in the political “black box.” Public authority operates under a framework of mutual supervision and mutual independence, therefore the media doesn’t have to spend all of its energy nor risk their lives to expose scandals.

From this point of view, Hong Kong’s press is, in most cases, just playing the basic "watchdog" role of informing the public. It is rare that they have a scoop involving “digging up dirt” that can shock people.

The crowds of Hong Kong media hanging from cranes over Mr. Tang’s mansion’s fence is after all a single specific case of a larger phenomenon. Before it happened on Feb. 16, the media had already repeatedly posed the same questions to Tang many times. Since Mr. Tang seemed to be withholding the truth, the Hong Kong media rented cranes and took a look over his garden fence. The media follows the principle that all public figures have to be supervised.     

A Hong Kong reporter told me that media probing only has to respect one basic premise: all parties must be probed. Questioning is based on common sense and logic. And the premise that supports this common sense and logic is democracy and the rule of law. In the Tang case, the Hong Kong press wanted to inspect whether the rumoured luxurious underground palace was built before or after the construction plan was authorized. This is the point of determining whether it’s legal or not.

At the same time, the media also interrogated Buildings Department officials as to whether or not they had done their job in accordance with the law. This is a time where the government can demonstrate its administrative efficiency.

“Lock up power in a cage” in no way defines the media’s take on everything, nor mean that an affair drags on indefinitely. On the contrary, it tries to review every detail of a case according to the law, put it in perspective and see through to a justified punishment if it so merits.  

The higher rank the official’s position is, the more he has to assume the consequences. For the man given the highest leadership of Hong Kong, integrity is even more important than experience. This explains why when Mr. Tang’s secret was exposed, his poll ratings plummeted.

It would be incomplete to say this is because Hong Kong has a powerful media. We might rather say it’s because all political parties, as well as the citizens of this island society, agree that politics should be clean, and power must be regulated.

The Hong Kong media is not an exotic flower, but just a basic product nurtured from a soil within its own legal tradition and political system.  

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