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Contenders in the race to become Hong Kong’s next leader are set to face awkward questions about the introduction of a new “whistle-blower protection law”, which would make it far easier to expose abuse of power in high places than at present.
The move to highlight the issue is being led by a group of academics – one of whom was at the centre of a high-profile case of alleged whistle-blower retribution at the University of Hong Kong – as public debate continues over police being called in to investigate leaks of information surrounding the city’s problematic new air traffic control system.
Baptist University research assistant professor Roger Wong Hoi-fung and “at least five” of the 1,194 members of the Election Committee tasked to pick the next chief executive will grill candidates for the top job over the protection of whistle-blowers.
The group, from the Higher Education Integrity Concern Group, will also demand that the city’s next leader set up an integrity office to monitor misdeeds in academia and in the innovation and technology sector.
“Their answers would be reflected in our support for them,” said Wong, convenor of the group. In 2014 Wong was dismissed from his job as an assistant professor in HKU’s department of chemistry after he accused his then supervisor, Professor Yang Dan, and two other doctoral students of falsifying research results in a paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Wong’s dismissal was later retracted after he made a complaint to the university and resigned months later.
More recently, fears over possible institutionalised retribution against whistle-blowers emerged when the embattled Civil Aviation Department(CAD) called in police after an image of a radar screen showing flight information was leaked to a Chinese-language newspaper over its trouble-plagued new air traffic control system.
At present, unlike many other developed societies, Hong Kong has no law to protect those who blow the whistle from employer retaliation. Critics of the status quo argue that a law would encourage a self-regulating culture that would end up benefiting employers.
Wong and his backers will grill already confirmed candidates for the top job – retired High Court judge Woo Kwok-hing and pro-establishment lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee – on the matter. They will follow suit with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who is waiting for Beijing’s approval of his resignation, and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, should they confirm they are entering the race.
Wong specifically called for not just immunity from bosses’ retaliation and civil responsibility, but also criminal liability.
Commenting on the CAD saga, Wong said whistle-blowers often had to rely on computers and electronic devices to spill the beans these days, thereby putting themselves at risk of being accused of using computers with dishonest intent.
“[That means] not only are they giving their career away, they may also be subject to physical suffering,” he said, referring to a possible jail sentence. “This sounds like what would only happen in impoverished countries.”
Legislation could reduce cases of misconduct and help law enforcement agencies and institutional regulators save costs over their investigations, HKU law faculty senior fellow Bryane Michael said.
Accountancy sector legislator Kenneth Leung, who drafted his own private whistle-blower protection bill last year, also highlighted the lack of incentive for the government, given the opposition from the business sector as it would suck up resources, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises.
“The government dares not do it … It causes too much trouble for it,” Leung said.