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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong cabinet reshuffle not linked to extradition bill protests but non-performance, disappointing critics

  • The revamp, which is expected to be officially revealed this week, shows chief executive disappointed with performance of four ministers, insider says
  • But secretaries who came under fire for mishandling scrapped extradition bill will remain in their positions
A cabinet reshuffle by Hong Kong’s leader expected to be announced this week sends a message that her administration will stand firm against criticism by the opposition and reflects Beijing’s ambition to tighten its oversight on the city amid a wave of anti-government sentiment, analysts say.
The upcoming revamp, which sources revealed on Tuesday, comes amid an escalating row over the role of Beijing’s liaison office and the cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

A government source familiar with the matter said Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had been disappointed with the four ministers’ performances over the past two years, while Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, the current secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, would help to reorganise the Civil Service Bureau as its new chief, replacing Joshua Law Chi-kong.

The central government’s liaison office in Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

The insider denied the move – planned sometime earlier – could be seen as punishment by Beijing for recent upheaval over Article 22 of the Basic Law. The central government’s offices in Hong Kong have been locked in a battle with the opposition camp over the past week, accusing the lawmakers of filibustering, criticisms the politicians say amount to interference and therefore violate the article.

“Lam wanted Joshua Law to do something on civil servants after the anti-government protests, but he was resistant,” the source said. “Patrick Nip at least understands Beijing’s preference more.”

But no ministers who came under fire for mishandling the now-withdrawn extradition bill are involved in the reshuffle.

The proposal prompted millions of people to take to the streets in June last year and the crisis snowballed into an anti-government movement that shook the city’s social stability and alarmed Beijing.

Two of the new appointees are relatively young members of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the biggest pro-establishment political party in the city.

Current Undersecretary for Labour and Welfare Caspar Tsui Ying-wai will be promoted to minister for home affairs, while Christopher Hui Ching-yu, the executive director of the Financial Services Development Council, will become secretary for financial services and the treasury. Both Tsui and Hui are 43.

Laurence Li Lu-jen, head of Financial Services Development Council, expressed confidence in Hui.

“If it is Christopher, I’m confident that he will be a very good secretary for financial services,” Li said. “He knows the industry, has worked with government, he has international, local and mainland-related experience. Also, most importantly, his heart is in the right place, [he is] very committed to Hong Kong and to public service.”

Lau Siu-kai, the vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said an injection of fresh blood could answer Beijing’s demands for changes in the administration.

Three of the bureaus involved were politically sensitive – the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB), Civil Service Bureau, and Home Affairs Bureau – while the other two involved sectors that were instrumental in strengthening Hong Kong’s economic growth, he said.

There are unprecedented challenges ahead for the government
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies

“There are unprecedented challenges ahead for the government, including dealing with the new district councillors on the Home Affairs Bureau front, the election procedures and approval of candidates in the upcoming legislative and chief executive elections for the CMAB, as well as more national education needed for civil servants,” Lau said. “All these require strict ‘controls’ with reliable chiefs, especially for a weak government.”

While it remained unclear whether the new faces would lead to significant new policy direction, the move “can prove to the public that the government would not back down, when facing opposition forces,” he said.

Lui Ping-kuen, a senior lecturer at Baptist University, said the reshuffle signalled a “tightened grip on opposition groups will be coming ahead”.

But unaffected by the revamp are Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah, and Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, noted Ray Yep Kin-man, a political scientist at City University.

“Hong Kong people should not expect key officials to be held accountable for the political crisis triggered by the controversial bill before the tenure of the current government expires in 2020,” Yep said.

Secretary for Security John Lee, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam meet the press over the coronavirus pandemic last month. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Commenting on other appointees, Cheung Chor-yung, a senior teaching fellow of public policy at CityU, said Director of Immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai was chosen as the head of the CMAB because Beijing believed heads of disciplined forces were politically trustworthy.

Tsang, who has worked at the department for 33 years and had been expected to retire in September, worked with Nip last month to organise the evacuation of hundreds of Hong Kong residents from Hubei province on the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

Government sources said Tsang had a good relationship with Beijing, and his loyalty was never in doubt with the portrait of President Xi Jinping hanging in his office.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said the reshuffle showed the administration and Beijing were digging in their heels.

The least popular ministers for security and justice have not been replaced
Wu Chi-wai, Democratic Party chairman

“The least popular ministers for security and justice have not been replaced,” Wu said. “Instead someone from disciplinary forces is now in charge of political work.”

Wu also warned that a push to enact national security laws could be coming soon and authorities could take tougher action against political activists.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, former secretary of civil services, said the government might need to explain the reason for the reshuffle, but he did not see the choice of Nip to lead civil services as going against convention.

“It was a common practice that the civil services chief should be a former civil servant, so that he would know best of what the forces need,” Wong said. “But before Nip joined Lam’s cabinet in 2017, he had for long served the government, so compared with other ministers, I see him as a proper choice.”

Additional reporting by Gary Cheung and Sum Lok-kei

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Reshuffle ‘sends message that Lam will stand firm’