Records swept away on wave of indifference

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2008, 12:00am

Imagine a reservoir that receives no fresh input of water. The stored water gradually drains away, the infrastructure becomes useless and the population is deprived of a key source of life. Transplant that image to the government's records system, and you have an idea of what's happening to Hong Kong's archives, says Simon Chu Fook-keung, the recently retired government archivist.

Examples abound of why this matters. Among the more recent is 31-year-old Kelvin Li Kwok-yin, the man seeking his biological parents after a mix-up at either the hospital where he was born or the orphanage he was moved to. Neither had records to shed light on his case.

A hundred people are being asked to offer their DNA in an attempt to solve the baby-swap mystery that proper record keeping could have avoided.

Mr Chu was called on to advise on what might have happened to those records and found that the Hospital Authority had destroyed them - because no law required it to keep them.

Or take the era of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and imagine you are a researcher wanting to know how key issues were decided. It might be assumed that a system exists whereby all records will be safely kept.

Not so, say our professional archivists and others who have studied the issue.

Not only are new files not being added to the Public Records Office, but old files are sometimes borrowed and not returned. The shelves are emptying.

'Now you can easily see minutes from meetings held here in the 1890s, but 30 years from now, we won't have records of what is happening now,' says Robert Nield, president of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Compare this situation with that in Washington. As soon as a presidency ends, archivists arrive at the White House to tag what they want and have a legal right to.

Closer to home, we also lag badly behind the mainland, where every government body, from the lowliest district office to the highest departments, must copy everything to the central archives.

In Hong Kong, no law exists to require any government or related body to preserve records of achievements and failings. Mr Chu notes that the law would be simple to draft, and that almost every other country has one. He frequently travels to international conferences and is perpetually embarrassed by our lack of such legislation.

'The absence of archival legislation has resulted in gross structural deficiencies regarding the management of public records, which affect not only the preservation of documentary heritage but also the efficiency, transparency and accountability of the government,' the Civic Exchange think-tank concludes in a report called 'Managing Public Records for Good Governance and Preservation of Collective Memory'.

'These deficiencies are alarming and require urgent solutions,' says the report, co-authored by former legislator Christine Loh Kung-wai, Marcos van Rafelghem and Jaimie Graham.

Before 1997, it was standard practice for Hong Kong records to be sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London for archiving. This meant Hong Kong's history could be researched through the British government's archives. The presence of an elected parliament behind the colonial government gave succour to researchers too, in that appeals could be made for the public right to know.

Since 1997, archivists say, there has been no similar system for all aspects of Hong Kong to be recorded in Beijing.

The report, commissioned by the Archives Society, was produced one year ago. Since then, nothing. The Royal Asiatic Society has written 62 letters to relevant government figures and received no meaningful response. One promised a response in detail 'in due course'.

How will the public question government decision-making in court if the records of those decisions are not properly kept? How will Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen be able to look back on his time in office and quote his successes?

'The record of his achievements will be lost without an archive law,' notes Don Brech, the archivist brought in to oversee records management through 1997, and who advised on establishing the Government Records Service (GRS). He is a records management consultant, but finds more work in Europe, Africa and the United States than here.

The government does have administrative arrangements, albeit without a law to back them up. Departments are supposed to ask the advice of the GRS when they want to dispose of records, but it is not a legal requirement. Records can be tossed out daily, with no one any the wiser.

Fourteen questions to the GRS from this newspaper went unanswered last week.

However, in reply to questions from legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee in the Legislative Council in October and November 2006, former chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan said: 'Whilst there is no archives or records legislation in Hong Kong, the present system is functioning effectively and we will continue to improve on it. We do not consider archival legislation a priority item ...

'We are not aware of complaints relating to denial of access to closed records. In any event, a person aggrieved may seek a review of the decision through the Director of Administration, the record-originating government bureau or other open means.' This is not good enough, Civic Exchange and the archivists say.

'The Government Records Service, which is supposed to be the government record authority, is neither empowered nor given the capacity to lead or monitor effective record policy and practices across government,' the Civic Exchange report says. 'Government bureaux and departments are not legally obliged to create and maintain records, let alone to transfer those of enduring value to the archives for preservation and public access.'

Nor is the public in the loop.

'Public access to government records is not a statutory right and is subject to many broadly defined exceptions and inconsistent approaches. There is no judicial appeal mechanism to address any rejection of access to records.'

Meanwhile, statutory bodies, all 200 of them, are not treated as government departments and their records are not considered public, so they fall outside what little government control exists.

When historians come later to work out how the Graham Street market re-development was decided upon and handled, or what happened to the foundation stones of Central School hidden underneath the old Police Married Quarters on Hollywood Road, how will they find out what happened?

Now, as the government deals increasingly with electronic information, the huge issue of digitisation is also not being properly addressed, archivists say.

It would be easy to assume that slackness towards proper archiving is deliberate to avoid accountability. If the records of Falun Gong practitioners' treatment at the airport are lost, as they were, then they can't be used against the government in court, for example.

But archivists do not see a conspiracy in the government's failure to prioritise new legislation on archives. Rather they say it is laziness and ignorance.

'Every day that goes by, files are disappearing,' Ms Loh says. 'It's not just laziness. There's a huge dose of ignorance as well. The intellectual paucity would be quite funny - if it wasn't so serious.'