Since reunification, there has been much talk about the civil service losing its glamour and capabilities, which were once regarded as supporting the pillar that most counted in British-ruled Hong Kong, along with the rule of law. In particular, the administrative officers were, from time to time, targeted as the main culprit of the failure of governance. All this would suggest that people would prefer not to entrust administrative officers to run Hong Kong.
Not so. Since Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan resigned from government due to health reasons, people have sought to find her successor from among retired or serving administrative officers. Top civil servants still seem to be a safe pair of hands. In mid-2008, when the government introduced undersecretaries and political assistants, one of the misgivings about these new political appointees was that they had not gone through the same rigorous recruitment process as administrative officers.
During the recent budget saga, critics liked to blame the alleged lack of long-term plans on the bureaucratic mentality prevalent in government - implying an incremental and conservative style not sensitive to volatile public sentiment. Yet, when the financial secretary directed a budget U-turn to accommodate the harsh realities of legislative politics, many commentators took it as the end of rational policymaking - even lamenting the end of a strong administration and the Hong Kong system.
So, what does the administrative officer system represent?
In the colonial era, these officers were the 'political officers' of the sovereign, in much the same way as their counterparts in other former British colonies were. During the 1970s and 1980s, as localisation picked up pace, administrative officers became the drivers of incremental bureaucratic reforms, especially under the stewardship of governor Murray MacLehose. By the early 1990s, the arrival of a politician-governor, Chris Patten, plus the preparation for the 1997 transition, subjected administrative officers to a baptism of fire in adjusting to nascent electoral politics and the media.
Top civil servants have continued to wield power and influence in government. The introduction of a ministerial system of political appointment in 2002 did not cause its demise. Instead, some of them have made it to the new political track, more so under the current chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Political observers, however, are divided. Some consider administrative officers too powerful and monopolising of the policy scene, but others perceive their power as being eroded by the emerging political appointees and elected politicians.
Such a binary view is a simple representation of reality. Senior bureaucrats still constitute the backbone of all governments, democratic or autocratic. At the same time, if one looks around the world, particularly at Anglo-American democracies, one can detect a steady loss of control not only among bureaucrats but also among ministers and politicians.
In his recent book, Power: Where Is It?, Professor Donald Savoie, a specialist of government, argues that it is difficult to pinpoint the location of political power. There has been a growing array of political and policy players - from traditional political parties and bureaucracy, corporations, the media, interest groups and lobbyists, to pollsters, spin doctors, campaigners, the new media, NGOs, and influential think tanks, consultants and commentators; you name it in fact. Not only that, there is now a more active court seeking to define what is right and wrong in policies.
Once, politicians complained that bureaucrats were too powerful and should be tamed. Now, power is even more tangled and fluid, with both politicians and bureaucrats losing their grip. The new information age and social networks are further creating a new laissez-faire in politics, making it all the more difficult to locate who commands and who obeys. Meanwhile, political overload - with day-to-day government overwhelmed by episodes, and big and small crises - encourages neither bold attempts nor bold failures, resulting in greater risk aversion.
Government impasse is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. A whole new political environment is feeding into feelings among citizens that their countries are less democratic and no longer effective. Popularity ratings of presidents and prime ministers have gone down.
Back to Hong Kong, administrative officers are powerful and yet not so powerful. People still trust them more than party politicians to run their government, but the heydays of administrative officer supremacy have gone.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank