Short-term populism is worthless

By Jason Yeh 葉家興  / 

Sun, Oct 07, 2012 - Page 8

There are many people who consider legislators in this country guilty of allowing themselves to be influenced by populist sentiment. It seems that some are calling for ministers and senior officials to account for what the government is doing about any issue that happens to preoccupy the press at the time.

This is not an ideal situation. Populism of this type is little more than a distraction, which drains administrative efficiency.

However, allowing populist sentiment to influence the legislative process is something else entirely. Legislation on an issue requires careful, comprehensive consideration.

If lawmakers propose random amendments in response to individual cases the media turn their attention to, without considering the peripheral costs and effectiveness of the amendments, they risk not seeing the wood for the trees, and missing important aspects.

In minor cases, this will lead to wasted time and effort. In more serious cases, this will distort the allocation of administrative and judicial resources, with more far-reaching repercussions.

One fairly recent example is perhaps the addition of a sub-clause to Article 54 of the Protection of Children and Youths Welfare and Rights Act (兒童及少年福利與權益保障法) announced by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) only last month.

Late last year a two-year-old child named Wang Hao (王昊) died as a result of abuse by his mother’s boyfriend — a drug addict — in a case that shocked the nation.

Given the extreme nature of the case, it was given substantial media coverage and this led legislators to pass an amendment on the third reading in parliament in July this year, creating what has come to be known as the “Wang Hao clause.”

According to this sub-clause, 54-1, “[i]f the child’s parents, custodian or any other person taking care of [a child under the age of 12] violates the Anti-Drug Control and Prevention Ordinance [毒品危害防制條例] and is thus wanted, detained, observed, forced to give up the drugs or imprisoned, the judicial police officer, judicial police, prosecutor or the judges shall investigate the child’s living conditions and care quality.”

The legislator who had proposed this amendment, when it was passed, was “moved to tears,” saying that “finally, child and youth protection has taken a step in the right direction,” in legislation that had “established a new milestone.”

However, according to statistics published by the Ministry of the Interior’s Child Welfare Bureau last week, the number of abuse victims under the age of 12 has fallen to 55 percent of all youth abuse cases, down from 74 percent eight years ago.

The percentage of abused children under the age of three went from 15 percent to eight percent in the same period.

Also, in that same time frame, the percentage of abuse occurring due to alcoholism or narcotics use on the part of the abuser has gradually fallen from 13 percent to 8 percent.

On the other hand, the number of abuse victims over the age of 12 has increased two-fold and the incidence of abuse by people not under the influence of drink or narcotic drugs has continued to increase.

As it is exclusively concerned with the children of people who violate narcotics laws, the “Wang Hao clause” completely disregards the statistical trend.

Amending the law in such a way fails to cover all eventualities and risks, leaving open all kinds of loopholes.

For example, by specifying only those who have violated the Anti-Drug Control and Prevention Ordinance, the clause does not apply to children of perpetrators of other serious crimes, such as murder, robbery or illegal use of firearms. This is just one example of misguided legislating.

In addition, the second part of this amendment states that, should “the judicial police officer, judicial police, prosecutor or the court judge” be informed after the investigation commences that the child is not receiving adequate care, then this is to be reported to the competent authorities, that is, the “government authority at the municipal and county level.”

What is the practical benefit of dividing this process into two stages like this? Why would the authorities not assist with the provision of safe housing or care, as required, from the start?

In addition, family members of defendants in narcotics cases are often suspicious of the motives of the police, the prosecutors and the courts during the course of the investigation.

Wang Hao’s father, when sent to prison for drugs offenses, was asked whether there were any children within the family that required care. Fearing that the child would be taken away, the father said that there were none — with tragic results.

This shows how easy it is for family members to misunderstand when people acting on behalf of the authorities interview them. This makes it extremely difficult for the authorities to assess the actual living conditions of the children.

Nobody is saying that children and young people living in high-risk families do not need extra care and resources. However, unless legislative amendments are well thought out and properly handled, they often just plug up one leak only to have another, perhaps even bigger, spring elsewhere.

There are legitimate concerns over whether there is a conflict of interests when legislators act as social workers. Is there a substantive benefit to this trade-off, or is it simply a case of too many cooks?

Children are the next generation of taxpayers. For this government, with its habit of accumulating debt, they are the most valuable asset it has. To play this game of short-term populism is going to do little more than help the legislators feel good about themselves. In the end, it will prove worthless and will do little to protect the next generation.

Jason Yeh is an associate professor in the Department of Finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Translated by Paul Cooper