New Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung’s 45-year climb from information officer to minister

In the 1970s, Cheung arranged visits for foreign media to the city’s refugee camps. Today, he’s one of the city’s top officials

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 11:42pm

At his farewell gathering a decade ago, a smiling Matthew Cheung Kin-chung looked gratefully back at his time in the civil service, where he had worked since joining in 1972.

He recalled going without any rest days for six months while serving as a senior information officer in the 1970s, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees flooded Hong Kong. He had taken less than three weeks off in the five years leading up to his retirement in March 2007 as permanent secretary for economic development and labour.

“I am most happy with my career, and I don’t think I could compose anything better if I were given the chance to rewrite my life story,” he told reporters during the gathering.

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Just months after his parting words, under the administration of then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Cheung was appointed secretary for labour and welfare – a role that would prove to be his most turbulent in all his years in government.

Cheung, now 65, graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 1972. He joined the government that same year as an information officer, working in the administration’s newsroom.

He is the kind of typical civil servant who would execute his mission well. But that’s all
Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin

During the Vietnamese “boatpeople” crisis of the 1970s, he was responsible for arranging visits for foreign media to the city’s refugee camps.

“If I was to endlessly explain to the outside world about the problems Hong Kong was facing and the city’s policies in order to draw international attention ... why didn’t I take part in the policy planning myself?” Cheung said in an article published by the Information Services Department in 2007.

He was transferred to administrative services in 1979 and has climbed the ranks ever since.

Cheung has served in various bureaus and departments, including the Home Affairs Department and the Trade Department. He was deputy head of the Central Policy Unit, deputy secretary for education and manpower, commissioner for labour and director of education.

As the city’s labour and welfare minister since 2007, he has been at the centre of thorny issues such as standard working hours and minimum wage legislation, and paternity leave – all of which are still fiercely debated over by unionists and employers with opposing views.

He whipped up a storm last month when he commented on the overwhelming support for a universal pension scheme at a public consultation. Although 90 per cent of the 18,365 submissions received were in favour of the scheme, Cheung said the submissions could have been filed by a group or an individual, creating “an illusion” of public support. He also questioned the “quality” of the submissions, as more than 16,830 of the submissions were written in just seven types of format.

His support rating fell from 60 per cent at the end of 2007 to 47 per cent this month, according to the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme. Still, his current rating placed him as the third most supported government official, behind health minister Dr Ko Wing-man and ex-finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah.

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“I don’t support him in becoming the chief secretary even though he has more experience in the administration than many others,” Labour Party’s vice-chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said. Lee described Cheung as a “loyal lackey”, who took orders from his superiors and did not have his own views.

“The debate on standardising working hours has been going on for so many years and what (Cheung) has said every time is that it’s a complicated issue that needs consensus from all sides. He has failed to show sincerity to make it happen.”

Lee claimed Cheung once wrote an email to former chief executive Donald Tsang saying he did not support scrapping the Mandatory Provident Fund offsetting mechanism. Quoting a person who had read the email, Lee claimed Cheung had said the MPF offsetting issue should not come under his bureau’s realm of responsibility and that someone else should tackle it.

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Cheung’s office declined to comment on the accusations, saying the issue would be addressed in Wednesday’s policy address.

Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin also criticised Cheung for not having the courage to take responsibility for decisions.

“He is the kind of typical civil servant who will execute his mission well. But that’s all,” Wong said. “But to be fair, although he is a minister, there is still the Executive Council above him.”

During Cheung’s time as labour and welfare minister, the statutory minimum wage was introduced and increased from HK$28 per hour in 2011 to HK$32.50. Since February 2015, all working fathers have been entitled to three days leave on four-fifths of their usual pay. And social welfare expenditure increased by 55 per cent to HK$66.2 billion between 2012 and 2016, the minister proudly declared on Saturday.

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In a blog post on January 1, Cheung boasted that the city’s unemployment rate currently stood at 3.3 per cent. Under his leadership, the Work Incentive Transport Subsidy Scheme was introduced in 2011, while the Low-income Working Family Allowance was launched last year.

“The current administration takes improving people’s livelihoods seriously. I always use the metaphor that the ‘cruise of poverty alleviation’, the ‘cruise of elderly services’, and the ‘cruise of helping the underprivileged’ have been braving the wind and waves,” Cheung said.