Former civil servant Rachel Cartland muses on a city driven by fear

Former civil servant's book Paper Tigress recalls a challenging career and she laments that the city is gripped by anxiety over freedom and Beijing's intentions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 4:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 1:23pm

Rachel Cartland was just 22 old and fresh out of Oxford University when she arrived in Hong Kong in 1972 as one of only two female expatriate civil servants.

Now 63, she has written a tell-all tale, Paper Tigress, about her 34 years in the civil service, which stretched into the post-handover years. But as she looks at the city today, she hears an echo of her early years in Hong Kong.

"The city today reminds me of Hong Kong in 1977 when the community was so tense because of corruption; it is yet again at a real crucial turning point in its history," she says.

She believes the mass protests in October after Ricky Wong Wai-kay's HKTV failed to get a licence was a clear sign of this.

"In 1977, there were accounting irregularities at the [since closed] Precious Blood Golden Jubilee Girls' School - and it was as dull as it sounds - but there were massive marches about it, with thousands out on the street and the government feeling that it was teetering on civil unrest.

"It was all very analogous with all the recent problems with the issue of TV licences.

"What the licensing problem is really masking is the extreme anxiety people feel about democracy, freedom, China's interference. So it's a really tense time again now," Cartland says.

Highlights of her career include opening a social services centre in the Kowloon Walled City in 1973, seeing the growth of new towns during the 1980s, establishing the Arts Development Council and taking up the post of assistant director of Social Welfare in 1995, overseeing 2,000 staff and a HK$25 billion budget.

"Frankly, I loved being a civil servant, which is an unlikely kind of confession," Cartland says. "I want a time machine to take me back to 1980 on a Groundhog Day loop because Hong Kong people look back at that as a golden age.

"The whole team spirit worked really well and we got the scope to do things; it was purposeful, dynamic." When Cartland retired in 2006, she felt that dynamism waning. "It was still okay but it had lost that feeling of whatever you want to do, it is doable," she says.

She blames the toxic relationship between the administration and the Legislative Council. "The government is too timorous and has lost its mojo," she says. "It can only get it back with some sort of democratic system, but in the interim, there's still scope for individual civil servants and ministers to make more dynamic and sensible decisions than they seem to be making recently."

Cartland remains "mildly optimistic" Hong Kong can enter another golden age of growth.

"[Former governor] Chris Patten said, 'You never make money by betting against Hong Kong'. People here have something magical, and, if they pull themselves together, they could make a new golden age - or it could go the other way," Cartland says.