The remark by Tang Jiaxuan casts doubt on a long-standing Hong Kong tradition The long-standing policy of Hong Kong's civil servants remaining politically neutral was described as a 'British practice' by a senior central government official yesterday. An academic said the remarks would arouse suspicion if mainland authorities felt the city's civil servants were not required to be apolitical when discharging their duties. Controversy erupted this week when the deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Xu Ze, reportedly told a civil service delegation in Beijing that members should be patriotic and uphold the Basic Law, including the Article 23 legislation. Some interpreted the comments as implying the pre-handover tradition of civil servants remaining apolitical no longer had to be upheld. Asked to clarify Mr Xu's remarks before he met Hong Kong delegates yesterday, State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan said: 'Political neutrality? I learned about that when I studied British literature and history. That's the practice of the British.' Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, a public and social administration professor at City University, said Mr Tang's response showed the central authorities did not attach importance to political neutrality. 'I think Mr Tang's remarks more or less showed that mainland officials do not take this issue very seriously,' he said. He said the mainland's civil service was still very much dominated by the Communist Party. 'The fact that it is a tradition of the British doesn't mean it's not worth keeping,' he said. Professor Cheung said Mr Tang could have used the opportunity to reaffirm the British tradition in the wake of concerns in Hong Kong over Mr Xu's remarks. 'Of course, remarks made by such a senior official would have an affect. They will fuel speculation,'' he said. But Professor Cheung said it would be up to the unionists and civil servants to defend the system in Hong Kong. Mr Xu's comments earlier prompted Secretary for Civil Service Joseph Wong Wing-ping to defend the British legacy, saying it was essential for civil servants to avoid any political consideration when discharging public duties. The Civil Service Bureau said it would not comment on the details raised at the meeting in Beijing, but the bureau reiterated that political neutrality had been the long-standing policy.