Embrace Beijing and pay ministers more, ex-leader Tung Chee-hwa urges Hong Kong

Training and higher pay would raise ministerial standards, Tung Chee-hwa says, and city has ‘everything to gain’ through closer mainland ties

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 8:23am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 11:28am

Hong Kong’s first post-colonial leader, Tung Chee-hwa, has urged the city to groom ministerial talent and forge closer ties with the mainland, saying it has “everything to gain when things work well with China and everything to lose when we don’t work with China”.

In a rare admission during an exclusive interview with the Post, the former chief executive noted the difficulty in recruiting talent from outside the civil service for top positions under the ministerial system he created 15 years ago, blaming it on unattractive pay packages, political division and lack of training.

Why Carrie Lam needs to prove herself before she can lure talent to Hong Kong’s governing team

Tung introduced the Principal Officials Accountability System in 2002 to improve governance and attract talent from the private sector. It allowed the chief executive to fill ministerial posts with political appointees instead of being restricted to a talent pool of career bureaucrats.

Tung Chee-hwa: the whole world is trying to ride on China’s economic progress ... why shouldn’t Hong Kong?

The idea was that politically appointed top officials would be more sensitive to public expectations in policymaking, as their job would depend on ability rather than seniority with a civil servant’s iron rice bowl mentality.

That philosophy saw Tung recruit five outsiders for his governing team. By contrast, incoming leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s cabinet, which will be sworn in on July 1 on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule, is dominated by either incumbents or internal promotees.

The pay is not high enough. You look at Singapore, what the pay is
Tung Chee-hwa, former chief executive

Tung, now an elder statesman as vice-chairman of China’s top political advisory body, rejected concerns that the system he started had failed.

“The pay is not high enough. You look at Singapore, what the pay is,” he said. “If I’m 50 years old, I want to contribute to Hong Kong, I come, I take a salary cut and I work for five years, and the newspapers beat me to death. And then he loses the job and he can’t do it.”

He identified “too much filibustering” by opposition lawmakers as one deterrent.

“There is no talent. You know, we don’t have a public policy school in Hong Kong. Why don’t all the newspapers say, ‘headline: please, public policy school, first priority’. How do you train all these people,” Tung said, sounding emotional.

‘Different crowd’ of mainland immigrants fill Hong Kong’s talent gap

Most of the city’s eight publicly funded universities have departments of public policy or administration, but the city has no dedicated school to help civil servants with on-the-job training or prepare talent for ministerial posts.

Starting from July, Hong Kong ministers’ monthly pay will be increased by 12.4 per cent from HK$298,100 to HK$335,100. The monthly salary of a minister in Singapore is about HK$514,000.

Hong Kong must get behind China’s vision to join the developed world

Tung would not be drawn into proposing how to fix the system for ministers, only saying the process could take “10 years, 15 years”. He also declined to reveal what advice he would give Lam, saying: “She is really competent, capable, experienced, and she takes decisions well.”

However, he had some advice for Hongkongers and opposition lawmakers, especially in the context of state leaders’ warnings against independence advocacy.

“Hong Kong has everything to gain when things work well with China; Hong Kong has everything to lose when we don’t work with China,” he said. “And [Beijing officials] are not asking for anything special. They are just saying, hey, ‘one country, two systems’. Will you look after the ‘one country’ aspect?”

As for concerns about interference in the city’s affairs, he said: “The central government doesn’t want to get involved in the day-to-day things. It’s only when it involves national security, sovereignty issues, [and] huge fundamental interest for the country.”