History remains the preserve of others

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 2010, 12:00am

It is a truism that much of the bureaucracy lives in awe and fear of the property tycoons and other business interests that have the ear of the chief executive. But it also seems afraid of its own shadow. Why else, one must ask, its persistent failure to enact a law to ensure the collection and safekeeping of government archives?

It has not actually refused to introduce a bill, but simply declines to find the time to do so despite the fact that it has been presented with a draft law on a plate by the Archives Action Group. This group brings together lawyers, archivists, historians and others who understand the importance not just of Hong Kong's past but of why good records are vital to its future good administration. The draft is a detailed one to create an overriding authority over official documents and a system for collection and access. Nor is this effort unique: efforts in the past have been made by Civic Exchange to spur action, all to no avail.

Hong Kong's lack of such a law is astonishing. Even the mainland has had one for several years, as does Singapore, not to mention all advanced countries. It is even more astonishing given that, historically, China and Britain have had traditions of record-keeping going back more than 1,000 years. China's records now serve a political purpose as the basis for territorial claims.

Hong Kong does have a Government Records Service and, in Kwun Tong, a modern and well-equipped Public Records Office open to the public. However, there is no compulsion on departments to keep records, no overall system for deciding what must be kept for posterity, no standardised procedure for determining which documents need to be kept secret for a limited time. Even in vital areas such as the law and land records, there is no overriding compulsion even if in practice some have superb and easily accessible data.

There seem to be two reasons for the lack of a law. One is the high-handed bureaucratic traditions of the colonial era. Archives mean that the past can be investigated and maybe official actions found wanting. With the sovereign power too far away to care greatly, there was no pressure from either above or below to counter the bureaucratic reluctance to face scrutiny.

The Patten administration went a little way towards more open government with its 1994 Code on Access to Information, but it has many exceptions. Even if a freedom of information law is ever adopted, it would be of limited use if the documents proved unavailable. The current bureaucrat-led administration is even more self-protective than the colonial one.

The second reason seems to be the urge on the part of officials who once gratefully accepted British honours to prove their Chinese patriotism by downplaying Hong Kong's separate history. If the way to win Beijing's favour is to speed up 'one-country' integration, why bother with actions that would tend to underpin the local sense of identity and history? Better chuck out all but the most essential documents or allow top officials to deem their files personal, rather than official, property when they retire. Better to create the kind of politically manipulated history evident in the Museum of History in Tsim Sha Tsui than leave too many contemporary documents to be picked over by a public looking for consistent administration or by historians writing up the real past. Some of Hong Kong's history was carted off to London - but even much of that can be retrieved by applying to the British National Archives for copies.

Private-sector groups from schools to charities and corporations have been working to preserve their past in their archives and see it celebrated in books and articles. But the government remains in denial of its past, unable to look to a future for Hong Kong as a society shaped by history. The bureaucrats' lack of pride in the city shows in their attitude to the past as much as in their do-nothing approach to today's air quality.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator