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Senior Belt and Road role in Hong Kong government pays HK$3 million a year and is open to non-Hongkongers. Why relax rules now? And why for this job?

Changes in eligibility requirements for Commissioner for Belt and Road position means candidates from mainland China, and further afield, can apply

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2018, 9:44pm

It can sometimes be quite telling when the government, as the city’s biggest employer, sets out to recruit top talent.

A case in point is the hunt for someone to fill the post of “Commissioner for Belt and Road”, who will run the office overseeing development opportunities for Hong Kong under Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

Since the search began in mid-August, the role is raising more interest across the border than here in Hong Kong, with mainland media comments such as: “a dream job”; “proficiency in Putonghua an advantage”; “you’re not mistaken, it comes with a monthly salary of HK$260,000 (US$33,000), or 220,000 yuan”; “application deadline in mid September, don’t miss it”; and “non-Hong Kong permanent residents can also apply”.

The attractive pay package aside, one particular “relaxation” of eligibility requirements causing a buzz is that “persons who are not permanent residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may also apply”. There is a condition, though: only when no qualified and suitable local candidates are available.

Why all the excitement? According to the Basic Law, “public servants in all government departments” must be Hong Kong permanent residents. So, why this specific new arrangement now for such a senior position?

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This was a post created in 2016 by former chief executive Leung Chung-yin, known for his super-enthusiasm for this ambitious strategic project initiated by President Xi Jinping. After a big search, Leung eventually picked retired trade veteran Yvonne Choi Ying-pik to head the new office. Having served with the government for more than 30 years, Choi came with a wealth of experience in economic and trade matters, including a stint as Hong Kong’s deputy trade representative in Geneva. Her last pre-retirement posting was as permanent secretary for economic development and trade.

However, Leung himself had only about a year left in his first term, so he could only make it a one-year appointment.

Also, taking a practical approach to avoid Legco’s scrutiny, Leung made it a non-civil servant position, and took a short cut and made it a non-paying job for Choi, who apparently did not mind at all.

This did not reduce the importance of the job; Leung made Choi report directly to him to help formulate strategies and policies for Hong Kong’s role in the Belt and Road development.

But, who would want a no-pay job for a tough mission like this – except Choi? Also, regardless of how dedicated a person is, the arrangement would not have been fair to anyone, including Choi.

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Now the government is reopening the vacancy with a handsome pay package, but the intriguing question is, why is it accepting applications from non-Hong Kong permanent resident applicants?

The interpretations are varied. Maybe the government has foreseen the possibility of not being able to find a suitable candidate locally? Or is it just being more open-minded in reaching out to global talent, including mainlanders, despite the right of abode restrictions?

This also raises a reciprocal issue: how about the possibility allowing Hongkongers to apply for civil service positions on the mainland?

Pay demands of Hong Kong civil servants are unrealistic

The weekend saw applications open for the much-anticipated new mainland smart ID cards for eligible Hongkongers based across the border to gain access to the same rights and many conveniences enjoyed by mainlanders.

No mainland civil service vacancies are on offer yet, and there may not be many Hongkongers looking for them anyway, as it requires different skill sets, among other issues.

The same applies to this demanding Belt and Road post when it comes to a non-local candidate, as the job needs to deal with plenty of interdepartmental and regulatory complexity. But some flexibility in looking for the right person is a necessary step taken by the government.

Let’s see who gets this contract job eventually.