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Why Beijing wants a bigger say than ever in who makes Hong Kong’s dream team

With the political heat in the government’s kitchen rising, certain positions in Carrie Lam’s administration have become increasingly sensitive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2017, 10:24pm

Here’s an old story worth retelling: 20 years ago, when Tung Chee-hwa was sworn in as Hong Kong’s first post-1997 leader, along with his cabinet, there was someone on stage who was not his first choice.

That was Elsie Leung Oi-sie, the first secretary for justice of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government.

As it happened, Leung went on to become one of Tung’s most trusted confidantes, and the two faced many tough times together.

It was understood then that Tung had decided to pick Leung upon Beijing’s advice, and that strong trust in her remains unshaken to this day. She was appointed deputy director of the Basic Law Committee under the National People’s Congress after retiring from government in 2005 and, until now, remains one of the most authoritative voices on the city’s mini-constitution.

When the country’s No 3 leader, Zhang Dejiang, recently made it clear that Beijing has the right “to appoint and to dismiss” senior officials and that the city’s governing teams “must be made up of patriots”, it was really not so unusual, or a departure from normal practice. Yet, it surely served as a reminder to incoming leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has come up with her final cabinet list and will submit it to Beijing soon for formal approval.

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In mid-April, upon returning from Beijing after receiving her official appointment and meeting with President Xi Jinping, Lam told the media that she was allowed flexibility to look for her dream team. However, the “nightmare” of a task that it turned out to be has revealed that besides the political heat in the government’s kitchen deterring talent from joining, an unspoken factor which made it harder than she might have imagined was how to clear Beijing’s possible doubts about any name on the list.

In theory, every ministerial post is important, but some could be deemed more important due to the nature of the policy areas they cover. The chief executive’s three top aides, namely the chief secretary, financial secretary and secretary for justice, in some respects, occupy the most critical posts, and Lam would not propose their names in her final list without Beijing’s prior consent.

The financial secretary’s post, in particular, is considered key as he or she not only has to look after Hong Kong’s economic and financial policies but also work closely with Beijing to ensure the city does its part in safeguarding national financial security.

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When it comes to the ministerial level, many expect Beijing to closely scrutinise portfolios that traditionally oversee sensitive matters, including cross-border issues, such as security, education, and constitutional and mainland affairs. However, two other bureaus are seen to have gained prominence in Beijing’s eyes now: the Civil Service Bureau, which shoulders the tough task of maintaining the

integrity and efficiency of a team of over 160,000 civil servants; and the Home Affairs Bureau, which controls resource allocation and government connections with local districts, including the handling of complicated youth matters.

This is not to suggest that Lam’s so-called difficulty in attracting attract outside talent for the “smaller” departments means she has not tried as hard or those candidates she has chosen are unworthy also-rans. If anything, they are seasoned bureaucrats who know well how the machinery works and are likely to reduce the orientation period for the new administration, as they know the system.

“The central government is responsible for supervising [Hong Kong] public officers to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the country and Hong Kong,” Zhang said.

Like it or not, Beijing is here to play a growing and substantial role in deciding all the city’s senior posts now.