Off the record
This is an important month for Hong Kong's history. The government is moving house, from Lower Albert Road, where it has been for more than half a century, to the Tamar site. And, in the course of moving, it will have to pack and, very likely, throw out old papers that it thinks it no longer needs.
William Waung, a former high court judge, has performed an important service by publishing an article in the current issue of the journal Hong Kong Lawyer on why we need an archives law.
Waung, a founding member of the Archives Action Group, points out that Hong Kong has no law that requires the creation, management and preservation of government records, unlike on the mainland, in Taiwan and even Macau. In fact, most jurisdictions around the world have such legislation.
So far, the Hong Kong administration has been unmoved by arguments for archival legislation. In 2006, then chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan confirmed that there were only 'administrative arrangements' in place and there was no obligation for the 200-plus statutory bodies to transfer their records to the government. However, he said, the system was functioning effectively.
Not so, according to Waung. In the past five years, 'government departments and bureaus have been reluctant to turn over their records for selection and preservation' by the Public Records Office. Alarmingly, the number of archival records transferred to the PRO dropped by 44 per cent between 2008-09 and 2009-10. Moreover, some of the most important government agencies - including the Chief Executive's Office and the Chief Secretary's Office - have not made policy records available for selection and preservation since 1997. Already, courts have been told by the government that documents they requested had been destroyed.
This is clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Traditionally in China, records were considered so important that officials were assigned to follow the emperor around to record his words and activities so they could be preserved for posterity. And within each of the country's thousands of counties, there were officials whose job it was to keep a record of events of political, economic or other significance.
The need to properly preserve and manage records is a major issue that politicians should take a stand on. Of the leading purported candidates for the chief executive race, Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen is one who can push for an archives law. The fact that his office has not made records available for preservation suggests that he does not consider such a law to be important. He should be asked for his position on this issue.
All the other candidates, too, should be asked by the media whether they think it is important for Hong Kong to enact a law to preserve archives.
Meanwhile, all bureaus housed on Lower Albert Road should be told in no uncertain terms that no files are to be thrown out as a result of the move to Tamar. Unneeded and unused files should be forwarded to the Public Records Office for sorting and preservation and made available to scholars. Hong Kong cannot afford to lose any more of its history.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1