[Viewpoint] Bureaucrats embarrassing us abroad

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[Viewpoint] Bureaucrats embarrassing us abroad

I have seen and felt a lot while stationed in Hong Kong as a correspondent for nearly five years now.

Some of these experiences have been unpleasant and irksome, particularly those tied to visiting bureaucrats from home.

The lifestyle of Korean politicians and diplomats has changed immensely from the period of industrialization and democratization, and their lives are much less cushy than they were previously. Today, you can find many people in the civil service who work day and night for what can only be considered meager salaries compared to the amount of time they put in.

But diplomats and politicians in general are still often criticized in today’s world for their elitism, posturing, mannerisms and work ethic, or lack thereof.

Since we have gubernatorial elections coming up, I’d like to highlight an incident involving a visiting governor to provide a glimpse into this issue. The Korean official made the trip to Hong Kong as part of a promotional event tied to attracting tourists to his province. The event took place in a convention room in a five-star hotel here, and when I arrived the governor was nowhere to be seen. Hundreds of representatives from Hong Kong tourism companies and organizations scattered about the convention room were forced to entertain and talk among themselves. After inquiring about the governor’s location, an event host said he was waiting in the VIP lounge until the event officially began. It was quite shocking that he wasn’t out there mingling with those who showed up to hear his spiel. After organizers announced the start of the event, the governor actually walked leisurely into the convention room as a president or prime minister might.

When he approached the podium, a young translator stood beside him. The governor read his speech, while the translator tried to keep up. Their discordant and unrefined delivery drew muffled chuckles from the audience. After the two stepped down, an official from Hong Kong’s tourism office presented a welcome speech in eloquent, spontaneous English, where he stressed the need for cooperation between the two regions.

The official is a public servant in a city where English is considered the everyday language of the business world. The Korean governor came on what in essence was a sales mission, yet he acted like an honored guest. As the event progressed in English, the governor muttered, ”Maybe I should have spoken in English, too.”

Little did his constituents know that the governor would squander a fortune in taxpayers’ money on an overseas promotional tour that humiliated himself as well as his nation. This episode will likely repeat itself in the future if voters don’t pay extra attention to their ballots during the June elections.

Bureaucrats in the central government are no better. A senior government official stopped by Hong Kong on his way home from a visit to Beijing. He had a reputation as a clean and competent official. I attended a breakfast meeting he sponsored, where I asked him about his trip to China. His first comment: “The country is really grand. They even provided personal bodyguards to accompany me to Hong Kong.”

“What about the Chinese public servants?” I inquired.

“Great!” he replied. “I stayed at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. The food and service there was just superb. They referred to me as ‘da ge’ [big brother] after awhile.”

I ended the line of questioning right there. There was no need to continue. He was obviously smitten with the lavish Chinese hospitality he received.

Korea sponsored a host of investment relations activities in Hong Kong following the global financial meltdown. At one event, economy-related officials invited foreign investors in the hopes of spurring capital investment in the Korean economy. One official stood before the microphone addressing an audience of about 30 foreign journalists and investors and began hyping the Korean economy. But he was simply reading canned PR material. For about 15 minutes, he read without once looking up at the audience. During his speech one or two yawning reporters headed for the door. Then the floor was opened for questions. One foreign reporter raised his hand and asked about the short sales ratio on the Seoul bourse. The official looked surprised and confounded. Then he tilted toward a Korean financier seated in the front row and sought his help for translation. With the aid of his countryman, the official was able to save face. Not surprisingly, there were no subsequent questions.

Whenever I meet bureaucrats personally, I tell them to try not to bring shame to their country. Some then coolly respond, “We would do well if we are paid as much as civil servants in Hong Kong and Singapore.”

*The writer is the Hong Kong correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Choi Hyung-kyu
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