Lai See

Government urged to keep umbrella movement records

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 October, 2014, 6:26am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 October, 2014, 11:40am

Archives Action Group has long campaigned for an archives law to enforce good record-keeping and archiving practices in Hong Kong. However, its campaign has fallen on deaf ears within the government despite criticism by the director of audit more than two years ago and the Ombudsman earlier this year.

The criticism from both was damning and you would have thought highly embarrassing for a civil service that takes bureaucratic procedures seriously. The group even presented the government with a draft bill several years ago but to no avail.

The action group has now resorted to trying to increase public awareness of the importance of proper official record keeping in the hope that this will eventually pressure the government into doing something about this long-running scandal. Yesterday, it held a press conference urging the government to preserve its records relating to the umbrella movement.

"This is a historic moment in Hong Kong's history," said William Waung, chairman of the group. "No matter what happens in the future, this is a turning point in Hong Kong." The demonstration has "highlighted some of the key contradictions in Hong Kong society", and it is vital that records relating to these events be properly maintained for future generations.

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As an example of good record keeping, Waung drew attention to the recent New York Times story about British efforts to introduce democracy to Hong Kong. The story quoted an editorial in the People's Daily, which said: "In 150 years, the country that now poses as an exemplar of democracy gave our Hong Kong compatriots not one single day of it."

It added: "Only in the 15 years before the 1997 handover did the British colonial government reveal their 'secret' longing to put Hong Kong on the road to democracy."

However, documents recently released by the National Archives in Britain indicate that British colonial governors from the 1950s onwards had tried to introduce popular elections in Hong Kong, but had held off as the Beijing leaders were so opposed to the prospect of a democratic Hong Kong that they threatened to invade the city if these efforts were pursued.

"Without the documents, would anyone accept that story?" Waung asked.

Just over two years ago, the director of audit said in a report that the Government Records Service had failed in just about every aspect of its remit, from looking after records, vetting them and disposing of those no longer required.

Just over a year ago, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said in a written answer to a Legislative Council question: "Despite there being no dedicated archival legislation, the essential general principles of records management have in fact been implemented in Hong Kong through administration measures."

Despite these assurances, the Ombudsman drew attention to the "constant and enormous backlogs" in the Government Records Service and the obvious shortage of staff. The report noted 11 cases, including the Lamma ferry disaster where a failure to keep proper records led to a government department's poor decision-making or inability to resolve legal issues.

While the government is poor at keeping records, it appears to be relatively efficient in destroying them. In 2011, when government offices moved to Tamar, 2,326 metres of documents were destroyed, the equivalent of 11 times the height of the IFC building. It was highly unlikely that these documents were vetted properly for archiving. In 2013, records continued to be destroyed at a high rate, amounting to 1,400 metres of documents.

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