Civil servants, under fire from a senior mainland official who says they lack the ability to take command and plan for the long term, have hit back. They say the criticism should have been directed at their political masters.
The response from the Senior Government Officers Association came after Beijing's top man on Hong Kong affairs, Wang Guangya, was quoted as saying that colonial rule had trained civil servants to 'listen to the boss' but 'now they have become the boss, [they] still don't know how to be a boss and how to be a master'.
Association chairman So Ping-chi said yesterday that Wang should have referred to politically appointed officials rather than civil servants. 'Under the current political environment, politically appointed officials often just deal with immediate problems, such as when to give the HK$6,000 [payment to permanent residents] and where to get beds for women to give birth, which are not issues of long-term planning.'
Wang, director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was quoted by three Chinese-language newspapers as having made the remarks to a group of visiting Hong Kong university students in Beijing on Tuesday. While praising the quality of civil servants, he said 'Britain is responsible for both the success and failure' of their training.
Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang said Wang's remarks were groundless and 'gross interference in Hong Kong's autonomy'.
'His remarks show a total ignorance of how the civil service actually functioned before 1997 and afterwards. It was after the introduction of the political appointment system in 2002 that the responsibility of policy formulation was removed from civil servants and given to political appointees. Mr Wang's remarks are unfair to both the civil service and the previous colonial power.'
Under the political appointments system, permanent secretaries are no longer tasked with policy formulation.
Veteran politician Allen Lee Peng-fei, who served on both the Executive Council and the legislature before the handover, said: 'Beijing can't blame Britain because it's their fault for failing to fix the problem 14 years after the handover.'
He believed Wang's criticism primarily targeted Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a veteran civil servant, and other civil servants who had become ministers. 'Beijing is not happy with Donald Tsang's inclination to only focus on the immediate future.'
New People's Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who served as a civil servant and a minister, shared Wang's view.
'My own reading is that Mr Wang is saying the model for Hong Kong will be a 'civil servants plus' model,' she said. 'The current system led by civil servants has proven a disappointment. You need leadership, vision and long-term commitment.'
Former secretary for the civil service Joseph Wong Wing-ping believed Wang was not targeting civil servants. 'It was more likely he was referring to civil servants-turned-ministers,' he said.
Wong said Hongkongers had high expectations of long-term policy planning after the handover. 'But the current administration has failed to address some issues which affect Hong Kong's long-term development, such as housing and an ageing population.'
A government spokesman declined to comment on Wang's remarks, saying it was unsuitable to comment on quotes in the press.