A delicate act

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 1996, 12:00am

The Government is performing a delicate balancing act in its guidelines on civil service involvement in the Selection Committee. Local unions are outraged that these ban around 30,000 officers from sitting on the 400-member body. A Xinhua dispatch warned 'no one' has the right to deprive Hong Kong people of the chance to participate in this process. But since the Selection Committee's duties have been expanded to include appointing a provisional legislature, to which the Government is firmly opposed, it is difficult to see how the administration could allow its most senior employees to become involved, without undermining this fundamental policy.

Despite this, the Government has made considerable compromises. The overwhelming majority of civil servants will be allowed to participate in all the Selection Committee's activities, being asked to do no more than adopt a low-profile on decisions relating to the provisional legislature.

Nor should there be any dispute over why most of the 30,000 were excluded. More than 92 per cent of these are police officers and no one, not even their staff unions, can seriously suggest that the forces of law and order should be allowed to become embroiled in such a contentious political issue.

Many of the others affected by the ban are information officers and policy-making administrative officers, whose participation would involve a clear conflict of interest with their official duties. So the only possible controversy can be over a relatively small number of professional directorate officers, such as doctors and engineers, a few of whom have already expressed a desire to sit on the Selection Committee.

But even they must understand that, as senior government employees, they have a duty not to actively participate in something so clearly contrary to an important government policy. Attempts to draw comparisons with civil servants' right to vote in Legislative Council elections are misplaced. No one disputes the legitimacy of those elections whereas, in this case, the administration has repeatedly questioned the legality of a provisional legislature.

To allow senior officers to become caught up in that debate would undermine the much-vaunted neutrality of the civil service, which China has repeatedly proclaimed it wishes to preserve. When Beijing saw this as under threat from a 1993 British proposal for a functional constituency for government employees, it was quick to warn against doing anything that might politicise the civil service.

The same injunction must apply on this occasion. The Selection Committee's task of choosing Hong Kong's first Chief Executive is an historic event in which as many people should participate as possible. The Government's guidelines go as far as they can in this direction, without affecting the smooth running of the civil service. The display of flexibility reflects the Government's willingness to work with the Preparatory Committee for a smooth transition.