It’s now or never for a Hong Kong archives law, as British files reveal

Gary Cheung says declassified files on a 1987 Sino-British deal over direct Legco elections underline the need for louder calls to preserve the city’s public records, especially in view of the upcoming chief executive election

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 5:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 8:42pm

Direct Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong for 1988 were killed off after Britain and China secured a secret deal in October 1987, according to recently declassified British cabinet files from the National Archives in London. Under Beijing’s “private commitment”, provisions for direct Legco elections would be included in the Basic Law if they were not introduced until after the mini-constitution was promulgated three years later.

The secret deal was struck when a consultation on the development of a representative government was under way. The local government was criticised at the time for manipulating the views of some Beijing-friendly groups to ensure that no clear mandate for direct elections in 1988 emerged, even though many surveys showed more than 60 per cent support.

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A note to then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on October 2, 1987, from then foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, called the initial findings of the consultation “highly satisfactory”. Eventually, Hong Kong introduced 18 directly elected seats in 1991.

Maintenance of public records is vital for institutional memory and a key component of good governance

I went through a number of declassified files relating to Hong Kong from 1986 to 1989 and, as a supporter of the introduction of direct elections for 1988, I was furious to learn how democratic development was delayed because of the behind-the-scenes deal.

Yet credit is due to the British government for keeping the well-documented records, as required under its Public Records Act of 1958, which says all government records should be transferred to the National Archives after 30 years.

Maintenance of public records is vital for institutional memory and is a key component of good governance. Public officials would behave more responsibly if they knew all may be disclosed decades later. However, the absence of an archives law means details on controversial issues, such as the scrapping of ex-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa’s target of 85,000 flats a year, or his feud with former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, may never be revealed.

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The proliferation of easy-to-delete electronic records adds to the fears of those who have long called for an archives law to prevent a historical black hole. In 2011, the government admitted to destroying documents that, if stacked up, would be almost three times the height of the Two IFC building, before moving into its new headquarters in Tamar.

Are records on discussions between Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who spearheads the controversial Palace Museum project in West Kowloon, and Beijing authorities being properly kept?

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The absence of an archives law leaves it up to bureaus and departments to transfer documents to the Government Records Service. In 2014, the offices of the Chief Executive, the Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary – the nerve centre of the administration – transferred a total of 130 records to the service. That accounted for 0.2 per cent of the total records from all government departments transferred to the government archivists that year.

The absence of an archives law leaves it up to bureaus and departments to transfer documents to the Government Records Service

Campaigning for chief executive in 2012, Leung Chun-ying signed a press freedom charter drafted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which included a pledge to facilitate the enactment of a freedom of information law to grant the public easier access to public archives.

Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who will be contesting the chief executive election in March, has pledged his support for enacting an archives law. Another candidate, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, said she supported the move “in principle”.

It remains to be seen if Lam and John Tsang Chun-wah, also expected to join the race, will endorse the idea. It is time to renew the momentum for an archives law before it is too late.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor