Hong Kong government clings to its secrets as fewer records declassified

Records Office is opening up a decreasing number of secret files for public view under its code to declassify documents after 30 years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 May, 2013, 2:26pm

The Government Records Service has been releasing fewer and fewer secret records over the past five years when they become eligible for declassification under a 30-year principle.

And even when documents are released, the public may never know about them - as the Government Records Service (GRS) never announces what new files have been opened.

Unlike in Britain and the United States where declassification falls under freedom of information laws, here the 30-year rule principle is only part of a government code on public records access. And the release rate has dropped from 61 per cent in 2008, to 46 per cent in 2010, to 41 per cent in 2012, according to figures given by the GRS in response to an inquiry by the South China Morning Post.

Most of the unopened files are "to be reviewed again later" by their originating bureaus or departments.

Records declassified over the last five years cover a wide range of issues - from identifying a site for a nuclear power plant to monitoring communist activities in the New Territories.

Under the existing code, the GRS is expected to make available public records that are 30 years old. For top secret, secret or confidential records which contain sensitive information, such as security and external affairs, the GRS has to consult with the originating bodies on whether to release them. The records office is supposed to have the final say.

The GRS would give the Post only a list of "subjects" covered by declassified files opened in the past five years (see table below), rather than their exact titles. No such list on declassified files is available in its public viewing room in Kwun Tong or on its website.

Asked how the public were to know of the existence of any newly opened files, it said: "As a practice, the GRS will arrange for the opening of each classified record as per the outcome of the review, and the record and its description will become searchable in the online catalogue."

Since January, the Ombudsman has been investigating inadequacies in the government records system, following calls to improve storage and publicaccess.

Cyd Ho Sau-lan, a lawmaker who is in favour of an archive law, said the office should be more active in pushing to release more files. "Preservation and disclosure of records should go hand in hand, as public inspection of records is a way of monitoring governance," she said.

Former GRS director Simon Chu Fook-keung said that in the late 1990s, officials ordered the GRS to hide a catalogue of the names of all the records it kept - including unopened ones - from public view.

"Although we now have this annual review for systematic disclosure, transparency is compromised without the catalogue. The removal was a step backward," Chu said.

Hong Kong should follow best practice, such as in the United Kingdom, where the National Archive issues press releases whenever it declassifies documents, he added.

He also criticised the decision in recent years to hand the post of GRS director to an executive-grade officer instead of professional archivists.

Year Declassified records (by subject, 2008-2012)
  Source: Government Records Service
2008 Home Ownership Scheme, departmental complaint procedures, private sector developments, housing programme plan, land development policy, construction industry, population in public housing estates, overseas labour matters, water deposits, proposal of supplying photographs of policemen to the ICAC, medical development, reorganisation of the administration branch, corruption prevention, development of atomic power, draft estimates, student fare subsidy, population database, certificate of origin, rural committee, organisation and functions of New Territories administration, public transport, NT lease terms, landslide studies, reorganisation of the New Territories administration, police conference, traffic conference, maxicabs, integrated public transport system, island corridor strategy, legislation of Pak Pais, hawker policy, city district officer scheme, finance committee agenda papers, police working group consultative documents, international terrorism, network expansion of British section of the KCR, Hong Kong Airport Ordinance, community centre, Mental Health Ordinance, reorganisation of HAD headquarters, employment of juveniles, development in the economy, parcel post control, illegal immigrants from China, communist activities, draft plan on civil defence, Mutual Aid Committees, ineligible of disable people for public housing, food supplies and distribution, future of Hay Ling Chau, Precious Blood Golden Jubilee Secondary School, public housing rents, resettlement policy, village affairs, role and activities of the allied service police in Hong Kong.
2009 Production of new housing, community development, service trade shops policy, safety of lift installations, allegations of racketeering of HA shops, Land Development Policy, public affairs on radio HK, development plan, Home Ownership Scheme, rainstorm safety plan, PSPS projects, parking policy, food supplies and distribution, Advisory Committee on diversification, trade and industry, HK Polytechnic Council, New Territories village removal policy, water resources survey and proposed schemes, intelligence report, integrated public transport system, taxi licensing policy, public transport in the rural areas, public relations policy of METRO, abolition of public cars, movement of opinion direction, redevelopment of the Victoria barracks area, policy on conversion/redevelopment of public housing estates, boat squatters, road traffic regulations, Crimes Ordinance, hawker policy, finance committee agenda papers, Kennedy Town Wholesale Market, policy on mutual aid committees, railway terminus of KCR, Kowloon Tong interchange station, community building, hawker (NT) regulation, Vietnamese refugees, Kowloon permanent pier, Sunderland Road Camp, Hong Kong Chinese criminal activity overseas, illegal immigration statistics and reports, corruption, water supply, district problem, relationship between HAD and Urban Council, relationship of secretariat with branch secretaries, liaison with voluntary agencies, traffic laws and regulation, narcotics, payment policy, labour relations matters, development in the economy, etc.
2010 Participation in international matters, Home Ownership Scheme, factories in domestic blocks, land development policy, Towngas installation in public housing estates, Tai Hang Tung Rehousing Scheme, housing development, corruption prevention, advisory committee on diversification, bridge to Lantau Island, renewal of tenancy agreements for government leased domestic premises, supply targets for industrial land, sport centre, ICAC report on land development, future use of Hay Ling Chau, monthly conference of CSO, transport vehicles, Law Reform Committee, force morale, policy on illegal immigrants, cash escort, enforcement of hawker regulations, hawkers permitted areas, squatters and resettlement policy, rural village affairs, building policy, frontier closed area, aircraft in the frontier area, public affairs on radio HK, district study, report on fortune telling, labour relations in HK.
2011 Overseas publicity, site for public housing, Mutual Aid Committee in housing estates, estate caretakers salary scale, rents for schools and kindergartens in public housing, MP's visits, land development policy, development plan, special meetings of finance committee, future use of Hay Ling Chau, monthly conference of CSO, MTR land acquisition, island corridor strategy, public relations policy of METRO, hawker control, transport policy co-ordinating committee, transport advisory committee, KCR programme plan steering group, employment of Chinese immigrants, Origin Certification Purposes, MTRC Board Meetings, public transport system, government/MTRC consultative group, tactical and criminal intelligence report, illegal immigration, expansion and planning of police force, public utilities, New Territories new towns, Personal Beat Radio Scheme, organisation of traffic, unemployment and underemployment, reorganisation of controls and customs, Housing Authority Estates, Vietnamese refugees, science adviser’s and government chemist, crime detection and prevention, triad activities, narcotics control.
2012 Development plan, visits by the governor, World Bank visitors, rates in temporary housing areas, district development, accommodation for service industries, review of housing objectives, Land Development Policy Committee, Home Ownership Scheme, Revenue Estimates (Land), meetings with the government printer, Special Meetings of Finance Committee to examine draft estimates of expenditure, police conference, illegal immigration, MTRC, Government/MTRC Consultative Group, Tactical and Criminal Intelligence Weekly Report, legislation of insider trading, public relations of police force, control of hawkers, hawkers permitted areas, squatter and resettlement, study on summer job of students in HK, housing branch dealing with Elsie Elliott, licensed areas fees, Housing Authority Estates, Industrial Land Development Policy, Organisation of Finance Branch, Martial Arts Associations, Dawn Market (Tin Kwong Hui).