Undermining the once-cherished civil service

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am

Before 1997, it was often said that the 'four pillars' of Hong Kong's success were the common-law system upheld by an independent judiciary, the free and unfettered flow of information, a level playing field for business, and a clean, respected civil service.

The central government was so convinced of the importance of the civil service that it declared in the Basic Law that civil servants would all 'retain their seniority with pay, allowances, benefits and conditions of service no less favourable than before'.

At the time of the handover, top civil servants ran the government. Both Beijing and the newly created special administrative region government ensured virtually all principal officials who served under Chris Patten, the last British governor, were kept on by the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

Since 2002, while their remuneration has not suffered, the civil service has been progressively downgraded. Since the creation of a new layer of political appointees to serve as secretaries and directors of bureaus, the highest-ranking civil servants have been turned into their deputies, implementing policies rather than making them.

Six years later, the civil service is being further downgraded, with another layer of deputy ministers being put above them. And yet a third layer of political appointees, assistants to ministers, has been created.

In theory, the ministerial system was meant to protect civil servants by making the ministers take political responsibility if anything went wrong. And yet, six years after the system was introduced, we have yet to see a minister voluntarily resign to take political responsibility for anything.

Moreover, the civil service saw some of its best talent removed, as the government poached top administrative officers to fill the ranks of ministers.

The progressive downgrading of civil servants must inevitably affect their morale and their self-image, as well as their image in society.

And yet, civil servants are expected not to voice their grievances in public. They will continue to do the grunt work but not get the credit. It is little wonder, therefore, that retired top civil servants now feel they have no choice but to speak up against what the government is doing.

When John Chan Cho-chak, who is known for being able and hard-working but rarely outspoken, and Joseph Wong Wing-ping, who as secretary for the civil service represented the interests of civil servants, feel they have no choice but to speak out, we know that something is seriously wrong and that serving civil servants are unhappy.

The government has stumbled badly in dealing with appointees' nationality and remuneration. On nationality, it was right to say that the Basic Law does not require undersecretaries to give up foreign passports. But the government in effect ended up by implying that they should, on their own, respond to public opinion by abandoning foreign citizenship. That should not have been said. The government should have stuck by its guns.

There is also no justification whatsoever in not making public the salaries earned by public officials. This is the situation in almost all countries. Resolving the issue by having the officials themselves declare their own pay was wrong and cowardly.

In explaining its plan for the creation of political assistants, the government explained that the idea was to groom them so they could, if they wished, run for office as legislators in the future and, still later, possibly serve as ministers.

That being the case, it seems odd that no current legislators, who have already demonstrated that they are public spirited, with considerable political acumen, were appointed as undersecretaries. Such appointments would have underscored the government's policy of moving people up the political ladder. Not doing so calls into question the justification for these new posts.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator