New team nationality row 'underestimated'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 June, 2008, 12:00am

Government says it could have handled the issue better

The government yesterday admitted it had underestimated the nationality row surrounding new political appointees, but denied playing any part in their 'individual decisions' to renounce their foreign citizenship.

It also rejected allegations that the appointments were an act of favouritism, saying the eight undersecretaries and nine political assistants were hired on the basis of their political ability after a stringent selection process.

At a media briefing called after days of public outcry over the foreign citizenship of some of the appointees, director of the Chief Executive's Office Norman Chan Tak-lam admitted the government could have handled the situation better.

Mr Chan said although the administration had all along taken a 'clear position' that nationality would be an issue for individual appointees to decide, it had underestimated the public reaction over the issue.

He said some appointees had raised the issue during the selection process, and the government's response was that whether they gave up foreign citizenship would be a personal decision as the Basic Law did not bar deputy ministers from having such citizenship. However, they were told to reflect on the issue 'if they plan to pursue politics as a long-term career'.

With hindsight, Mr Chan said, 'we would have given that consideration greater emphasis for the appointees to think more deeply about'.

Following the public outcry, five undersecretaries with foreign citizenship have since taken steps to renounce their foreign nationality.

Mr Chan sidestepped questions on whether the central government's view on the matter had been sought, saying only that Beijing was aware of the government's position and was aware of the recruitment process.

For the first time since their appointments were announced two weeks ago, seven undersecretaries and nine political assistants yesterday appeared together at Victoria House, the chief secretary's residence, to meet senior members of the press.

Pan-democrats, pushing to invoke the Legislative Council's special powers to demand information on the recruitment exercise, were not satisfied with the government's explanations.

Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said officials' performance yesterday resolved none of the key issues of accountability. But Choy So-yuk, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said it was appropriate for the government to admit its failure in handling the escalating row, even though it responded too slowly.

Undersecretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen said the occasion was 'a good start' in cementing good relations with the media. He hoped for 'more dialogue, more communication'.

City University political analyst James Sung Lap-kung described the government's action yesterday as a 'low-quality PR stunt'.