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Carrie Lam

Hong Kong risks being left out of China’s breakneck growth with official think tank revamp, former chief says

Professor Lau Siu-kai says Central Policy Unit needs to focus on long-term planning above day-to-day coordination

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2018, 4:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 3:29pm

The Hong Kong government risks losing touch with China’s national development plans by downgrading the role of the Central Policy Unit (CPU) under a revamp being pushed by the city’s leader, a former head of the think tank says.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, who led the organisation for 10 years from 2002, said: “If you don’t understand what the national strategy is and why, you can’t do anything to fit into it except for taking orders from Beijing or waiting for it to tell you what to do.

“This should not be the way Hong Kong is governed.”

Lau, who is now a vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank based in Beijing, said research by the CPU in the 2000s had helped the government advocate key joint development work in the Greater Pearl River Delta area.

The unit had looked closely at Hong Kong’s strategic status in the region and how it could use its global economic network and legal framework to integrate with the other economic communities of the delta, Lau said.

The current revamp of the CPU was one of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s key pledges in her manifesto for last year’s leadership election.

Revamped think tank will drive policy innovation in Hong Kong

The unit will be renamed the Policy Innovation and Coordination Office, with the restructuring set to be complete by April.

According to the plans, the new office will have more than 70 staff including 20 to 30 young people specifically recruited as researchers. It will report directly to Lam.

Key functions will include “coordinating cross-bureau policies”, “providing opportunities for direct participation of young people in public policy formulation” and “providing secretariat support” to a new Chief Executive’s Council of Advisers on Innovation and Strategic Development, according to a government document tabled to the Hong Kong legislature last month.

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In comparison, the Central Policy Unit, set up in 1989, was mainly responsible for conducting policy research and analysing policy issues to provide independent advice to the top echelons of the government, including preparation of the chief executive’s annual policy address.

Lau said: “It looks like the new office will take care more of day-to-day operations instead of focusing on macro strategic planning.”

He also doubted whether recruitment of more young people would help enhance the quality of research.

“It may give people the impression that the new office is more a training ground than a high-level body on policy issues.”

At a meeting of a Legislative Council subcommittee last week, Laurie Lo Chi-hong, head of a task force charged with reorganising the CPU, told legislators that the revamp was an essential step to bring the unit into line with Lam’s “new style of governance”.

“The new office’s work will mainly involve coordinating departments so that relevant bureaus can take part in the early stages of deliberation on policy issues,” Lo said. “We hope that through such an arrangement the chances will be higher of the government coming up with policies that work and that solve problems.”