Civil servants the real election losers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2012, 12:00am


Who will be, and who should be, the major force for implementing Deng Xiaoping's concept of 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong'?

Well before the handover 15 years ago, these questions were being asked by Beijing and by the people of Hong Kong, and still a definite answer has yet to be found. The question has become more urgent following Chief Secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung's announcement at the weekend that he would not be joining the new government.

By default this 'major force' has been provided by the city's 160,000 civil servants, in particular the Administrative Officers, a group known as 'the elite among the elite'.

There are more than 500 Administrative Officers, or AOs, who occupy key government posts after passing entrance exams and undergoing year-round on-the-job training.

However, the plans for restructuring the government announced recently by chief executive-elect Leung Chun-yin, and Sunday's sudden announcement by Lam, the government's second-most senior official after Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, could signal that the end is now in sight for a system introduced by the British.

Recruitment processes for 20 to 30 AO vacancies each year regularly attract 10,000 applicants or more. Requirements include a first- or second-class honours bachelor's degree from a Hong Kong university or equivalent; a pass in the aptitude test in the Common Recruitment Examination; a good command of spoken and written English and Chinese; and a Hong Kong permanent resident status. Candidates with recognised postgraduate degrees are also eligible.

To attract top candidates to the civil service, the government offers competitive remuneration packages. For the 2010-2011 recruitment round, the starting salary was around HK$36,950 a month, plus 18 days' annual vacation and free medical and dental treatment. All new appointees are subject to a three-year probationary period.

The candidates who are finally selected are the cream of the crop, and Lam was one of these outstanding AOs, before quitting the civil servants' team to become a political appointee in 2002.

Lam is also a devout Protestant, and once his term, along with that of the Tsang administration, ends on June 30 he plans to study theology at Oxford University.

It has long been a tradition that 'AOs rule Hong Kong'. During the 1970s and 1980s most of the locally recruited AOs were among the best graduates from the University of Hong Kong and Chinese University, the city's two leading academic institutions.

They were regarded as 'God's favourites' as they would be rotated through a wide variety of important positions within the government every two to three years, to gain experience before they were appointed to more senior posts.

Most of the city's most senior officials were former AOs, including Donald Tsang; Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah; Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the first woman chief secretary; and Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, now Leung's top aide.

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the many rounds of Sino-British talks on Hong Kong's transition, Beijing and London were at odds on many issues, but the two sides did share a common goal: to establish a politically neutral team of civil servants to administer this capitalist city after 1997. In this the AOs would play a key role.

However, it was also during this time of transition that the AOs started to realise politics could sometimes not be avoided, especially during Chris Patten's time, when they had to defend the last governor's policies in the face of opposition from Beijing.

The situation didn't change after the handover, when the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, started to carry out a number of controversial reforms, including mandatory Chinese language lessons at schools. Senior officials were required to promote and defend such policies, despite any misgivings they may have had about them.

After a painful five years struggling to achieve a balance between neutrality and getting his reforms done, Tung introduced a group of politically appointed ministers who reported directly to him when he began his second term in 2002.

This ministerial, or accountability, system was expanded by Tsang in 2006 when he appointed a second tier of deputy bureau chiefs and political assistants. Tsang's dramatic changes were criticised as too hasty and half-baked, and its lack of public acceptance was seen as a reflection of its lack of merit.

The system did not entirely dim the attraction of a career in the civil service, despite the introduction of more senior officials from outside the ranks. But Tsang's appointments also meant that the elite AOs' once-promising future careers no longer seemed so rosy, since all the top posts now went to political appointees.

The highest rank an AO can have is that of permanent secretary of a bureau, unless he or she is willing to become a political appointee, like Lam and others.

It is no wonder that concerns for the AO profession grew when incoming chief executive-elect Leung announced his restructuring plan by creating the posts of deputy chief secretary and deputy financial secretary.

In response to the public outcry over the high income of some of Tsang's inexperienced political assistants, Leung also indicated that he would split one post into two or three, though he was wise enough to clarify that he was not expanding the ministerial system but grooming talent.

Whether this spoken guarantee can calm the nerves of the AOs is yet to be seen, and the question remains whether the AO system needs to be readjusted or reformed.

Theoretically at least, with a bigger, politically appointed team, the influence of AOs in both policy-making and chances for promotion will be diminished. However, political appointees have to face the risk of having to step down in response to political pressures, while AOs are supposed to be protected from that.

Lam's decision to leave the administration illustrates this dilemma well. If he had chosen to remain a civil servant he could never have become chief secretary. However, as such, he has had to bear the political flak of implementing controversial constitutional reforms, plunging his popularity to a level where Leung would have found it difficult to retain him. What a vicious circle!

Leung, a surveyor turned politician, hates red tape within a government and it is believed the Leung era will see Hong Kong enter a period of 'rule by professionals', where appointees' expertise may lie within a narrower field than trained multi-taskers like the AOs. It follows Tung's 'rule by businessmen' and Tsang's 'rule by civil servants'.

If Leung views AOs as professionals as well, at least in matters of governance, he will have to make the role of the AO complementary to that of political appointees. Otherwise, he is likely to create a system where his 'ministers' and his bureaucracy could find themselves in conflict.


The number of months Tsang's administration allowed for consultation in 2007 when new tiers of political posts were proposed