Hong Kong civil servants embarrass government with protest against extradition bill and determination to ‘stand together with citizens’
- Thousands of government workers call on embattled employer to meet protesters’ demands over extradition bill crisis
- Many dismiss notions of political neutrality, one saying: ‘If we chose to stay silent, we will be betraying our duty and the people’s trust’
Hong Kong civil servants risked the wrath of their embarrassed employer on Friday night as they gathered for an unprecedented rally in the city’s business district and called on the embattled government to meet protesters’ demands over the raging extradition bill turmoil.
Flanked by thousands of ordinary Hongkongers, the government employees’ protest went ahead despite – just hours earlier – the city’s second-highest official, Mathew Cheung Kin-chung, urging those on the public payroll not to “do things in contrast with the government’s views”.
But those who turned up at the Chater Garden rally said they were undeterred and had joined the protest in their personal capacity and on their free time.
Cheung Ka-po, one of the rally organisers, said their participation would not compromise their professionalism.
“As our society is approaching the brink of collapse, civil servants and other social sectors have voiced our concerns,” said Cheung, an officer at the Transport Department. “In the face of right and wrong, if we chose to stay silent, we will be betraying our duty and the people’s trust.”
He called on the government to formally withdraw the now-shelved bill and to launch an independent inquiry into the political storm. “Only in this way can our society walk out of grief and reconcile,” he said.
Organisers said 40,000 people attended the rally, but police estimated the crowd’s size at 13,000 at its peak.
The event lasted nearly three hours and spilled onto nearby Jackson and Chater roads and halted traffic leaving Central. It featured speeches from former civil servants as well as pro-democracy lawmakers who repeated demands for a commission of inquiry on the police force’s actions.
“Keep it up, civil servants,” the participants chanted, waving their lit mobile phones. Later, umbrellas went up as the rain came down – but the crowds stayed on.
A festive atmosphere prevailed, even as many demonstrators appeared irritated with the government’s stern reminder on Thursday that civil servants were to stay politically neutral and “totally loyal” to the chief executive and the government. Groups waved placards that read, “Political neutrality does not mean lacking a conscience”.
A civil servant who said he worked for the Hong Kong Observatory was adamant. He said he was not compromising his political neutrality by attending the rally because he felt he should be loyal to the people, not Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
“If the rally was to support the government and the police, would the government criticise us for breaching political neutrality?” said the civil servant with 15 years of experience.
He continued: “I found it really odd that they asked us to be loyal to Carrie Lam and her administration. We signed an employment contract with the government. What we serve should be the people, instead of Carrie Lam. Should we carry out a task if we know it’s unjust and unreasonable?”
Two 25-year-old civil servants from the Home Affairs Department – who appeared in masks – said they had the right to protest, something that should not be denied them “just because of our jobs”.
Ngan Mo-chau, a co-organiser of the rally and an assistant labour director, said the huge turnout of civil servants from 13 bureaus “echoed our rally theme, which says civil servants should stand together with citizens”.
Public administration scholar John Burns said the event showed that the government had “succeeded in fracturing a core institution of Hong Kong”.
“Our political leaders demonstrate again their incompetence. The government has squandered the community’s goodwill,” he said.
On their need to be politically neutral, he said: “Let’s dispense with the civil service’s polite fiction that it is neutral. It enthusiastically supports the interests of the business elite, especially the property developers, in Hong Kong against the interests of the rest of us.”
Several civil servants said they were going on personal leave to take part in Monday’s planned citywide strike, which could involve at least seven rallies across Hong Kong with scores of sectors taking part.
Less than 2km (1.2 miles) away in Edinburgh Place, medical workers held their own rally on Friday night. Organisers said 10,000 people attended, while the police put the peak number at 1,300.
The two rallies kicked off a weekend of protests set for Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
On Saturday, protesters will march in Mong Kok after police gave their 11th-hour approval on Friday night as organisers changed the route. Police supporters, meanwhile, will meet at Victoria Park the same afternoon, with the rural powerhouse Heung Yee Kuk urging village leaders to join the rally.
On Sunday, rallies are planned at Tseung Kwan O and Sai Wan.
Friday’s two rallies were peaceful, but the night did not end quietly. Protesters attacked the Ma On Shan police station, where the founder of the banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party and seven others had been detained since Thursday night.
The eight were arrested for possession of offensive weapons. Their supporters besieged the station, defacing it with graffiti and tearing at barricades.
Also on Friday, police said seven more men had been arrested for unlawful assembly in the Yuen Long attack on July 21, when a group of men in white T-shirts attacked passengers at the town’s MTR station.
Police said some of those arrested had triad backgrounds. One was stopped trying to cross the border at the Lok Ma Chau check point.
Meanwhile, the latest poll by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 79 per cent of the 1,000 people questioned wanted the bill to be withdrawn, while only half wanted Carrie Lam to resign.
The poll showed that younger respondents were more opposed to the bill than the older generation. Overall, some 69 per cent of participants were opposed to the bill – but the figure rose to over 90 per cent for respondents aged between 14 and 29.