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The difference between many senior bureaucrats in Hong Kong and most administrations elsewhere, is that the former are rarely faceless.
Policy secretaries here are as high profile as ministers in Britain or Secretaries in the United States. And in essence these are the roles they fulfil - except that, crucially - department heads do not formulate government policy, they simply implement it. If some become confused by this perhaps subtle distinction, it is understandable. The work requires them to appear every week in the Legislative Council to explain and defend the actions of their departments. They are routinely interviewed by the media and their private lives are widely regarded as a topic of public interest.
In other words, they have responsibility without real power, but with all the exposure that power normally creates. It is a role to play, or indeed to justify. And it is clear from the remarks of the Secretary for Security, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, this week that even among policy secretaries there is misunderstanding about their true role.
It is, however, surprising that such an experienced civil servant should fail to recognise the distinction. She is one of those who has worked under the administration of both the former governor and the Chief Executive. The difference in style and policy between the two men is huge; but even during the turbulence of the transition, the civil service seamlessly carried on doing its job as directed, and it has done so ever since, because traditional political neutrality is scrupulously observed.
That does not mean that policy secretaries' personal political leanings are not sometimes guessed at through the zeal they bring to aspects of their work. Mrs Ip's passionate denouncement of Falun Gong, or her warnings about 'floodgates' being opened to describe the prospect of increased migration to Hong Kong from the mainland suggest more than mere professional commitment. But that is another matter.
Her remarks emphasise again the weakness of the system, which gets more unwieldy as the electorate becomes increasingly politically astute. Pressure is mounting for a constitutional debate, where the issues can be discussed and the best solution found for future governance. There is no time to waste. Such complex issues could take years to resolve.