Illustration: Craig Stephens
Raymond Young
Raymond Young

It has taken 25 years, but the Hong Kong government has finally found its feet

  • Beijing kept its promise to leave Hong Kong’s governance structure unchanged but, by 2002, deep fissures in society had begun to hamper its effectiveness
  • The 2019 social unrest hastened the introduction of national security legislation and an electoral system that will ensure the effectiveness of governance going forward
The official dinner immediately preceding the handover ceremony on June 30, 1997, was a cordial, if highly choreographed affair. I had been drafted to be a master of ceremonies for the proceedings, and had the honour of addressing both Prince Charles, the representative of my hitherto sovereign, and Chinese president Jiang Zemin, the head of the country I was about to start serving.

I was at the time a senior directorate officer in the administrative service of the Hong Kong government. To put our minds at ease while serving the new government, officers in our ranks had been given the right of abode in the United Kingdom.

We had been emphatically assured by both governments that the governance structure that had served Hong Kong well so far would continue to do so after the transfer of sovereignty.

And so it did, at least for the first term of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, when the business of administration remained in the safe hands of senior civil servants, whose values and ethics had been largely moulded by their colonial masters throughout their career. The economy bounced back after the Asian financial crisis, defying earlier prognoses of our system collapsing under China’s rule.

From my point of view as a senior civil servant, Beijing had left us well alone, as promised, but underneath the euphoria of the fifth Hong Kong SAR anniversary in 2002, deep fissures in society brought by a hastened liberalisation of the electoral system in the last five years of British rule had begun to hamper government effectiveness.

Democratisation as a concept is motherhood and apple pie, but when suddenly implanted in Hong Kong’s unique political system, where the executive is beholden to the legislature for funding and legislation but does not have a single seat in that body, it would be a recipe for trouble.

Democratic Party members protest outside the Legislative Council on October 13, 1999. Photo: Antony Dickson
Exactly as governor Chris Patten would have it, the new Hong Kong government found it increasingly difficult to deal with elected liberal politicians who felt they had a more legitimate mandate to govern than the government.

Winning a majority of the popular vote in the Legislative Council but destined constitutionally to be in permanent opposition, the pan-democrats made it their vocation to discredit the establishment, playing on Hongkongers’ innate distrust of the Communist Party of China.

Civil servants had to fight daily battles with opposition politicians at all levels as well as a self-righteous media who, together, persuaded many people in Hong Kong that the Hong Kong government was now a puppet of the central government.

This inevitably affected the Hong Kong government’s standing in the eyes of the public and the effectiveness of government, as civil servants became increasingly cautious and shortsighted out of self-protection.

Partly to address this problem, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, started his second term in 2002 by introducing the political accountability system, but with no clear success. It did help him replace a number of administrative officers with people outside the civil service, presumably more politically savvy and less “tainted” by the previous colonial administration.


A look back at Hong Kong 25 years since the handover

A look back at Hong Kong 25 years since the handover

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, the chief executive was given the herculean task of a double bottom line: to serve the interests of the country and the interests of Hong Kong at the same time, when in reality many in Hong Kong did not think those interests were necessarily the same, or even mutually compatible.

It was such sentiments, fanned by a historically anti-China opposition and the local media, that doomed Tung’s attempt to introduce national security legislation and later brought about his own downfall.

His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, followed an ambivalent path and lost the opportunity to promote a better understanding of mainland China in Hong Kong, allowing hostile biases against the mainland to foment in society.

Meanwhile, we had a sense that the civil service was operating in a parallel universe from our mainland counterpart, and few attempts were made to make civil servants learn more about the strengths of the mainland’s more effective, if less liberal, system. By my own reckoning, during the unrest in 2019, the level of sympathy among civil servants for the rebels was very disturbing.

The ideological divide in Hong Kong society and the mistrust of the Hong Kong government continued to haunt the next two terms of government, making it difficult for the chief executive to forge any consensus on the most important issues facing Hong Kong, like electoral reform and housing.

But as if oblivious to the earlier showdowns between these forces ( national education in 2012, electoral reform and the Occupy movement in 2014) and the increasing geopolitical hostility of Western powers towards China, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had the temerity to court an unfriendly Taiwan’s cooperation with her extradition bill in 2019.
All hell broke loose and the rest is history. Ironically, it hastened the introduction of national security legislation, and an electoral system which, though awkward by Western standards, would ensure the effectiveness of governance going forward.
It has taken the Hong Kong SAR government 25 years to find its feet, and the people of Hong Kong to realise that however internationalised we think our city is, to the world we are but a part of China, and other countries would have no qualms about hurting us if that helped to undermine our country.

I have just realised that my British passport has recently expired. I have no intention of renewing it, as any remaining affection I used to have for my previous rulers has also expired.

Raymond Young Lap-moon is a former permanent secretary for home affairs