21 September 2019
Leung Chun-ying is truly a genius of political scheming unseen before in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters
Leung Chun-ying is truly a genius of political scheming unseen before in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Chilling messages from Leung’s callous sackings

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin once lashed out at Hongkongers, saying that we are all “naïve”.

(Editor’s Note: In October 2000 Jiang berated Hong Kong Cable TV journalists when he was asked if he handpicked Tung Chee-hwa as the chief executive. His now famous rebuke in English: “Too simple, sometimes naïve.”)

Now we know we are all truly naïve. Leung Chun-ying’s move last week to ease out two ministers has given us a hard lesson in politics: the top leader can do whatever he wants to weed out foes, clear obstacles and deter all his potential opponents in defense of his power.

We cannot compare the drastic ousters to the administration’s previous personnel changes in which officials resigned of their own accord, nor can we link it to the cabinet changes in democratic nations.

In fact, the reshuffle is reminiscent of the kind of infighting within China’s ruling class, although the methods used by local politicians are not that flagrant yet.

Commentators and forums loyal to Leung have been busy hinting that Leung himself initiated the sackings, a proof of Beijing’s trust in him.

Tsang Tak-shing must go because he failed to handle youth affairs properly, which indirectly led to the massive youth participation in last year’s Occupy protests.

Paul Tang Kwok-wai, secretary for the civil service, is accused of having poor working relationship with civil service unions and his complicity when a number of government employees supported the Occupy Movement and denounced Leung in public.

I think Leung didn’t discuss the matter with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, direct supervisor of Tsang and Tang, beforehand.

Lam merely noted later that she regretted the two’s “retirement”, but didn’t spare a word for Clement Cheung Wan-ching, Tang’s successor as head of the civil service.

It appears that she didn’t want to explain why Cheung, who is just a Grade A (D6) Administrative Officer, is favored by Leung to lead the territory’s civil servants as well as many permanent secretaries who are more senior and experienced in the government hierarchy.

Now I need to say a few fair words for Tang. The fact is that many of his predecessors had not been liked by civil service unions either.

Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong also got lots of criticism for his policies when he served in the post. The same to Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun and Lam herself when they served as Secretary for Education and Manpower and Director of Social Welfare respectively.

As for myself, I wonder if I might have been the least welcome head of civil service, as I had to press ahead with a raft of hard tasks during my tenure like layoffs and salary cuts.

The secretary for the civil service is supposed to guard the core values of Hong Kong’s civil servants, like respect for the rule of law, procedural justice as well as the balance between personal interests and those of the public.

The many responsibilities of this post are not merely about maintaining sound relations with civil service unions and groups, otherwise a human resources department manager can do the job.

Will anyone believe that Tang quit the post because “unforeseeable family circumstances” that require him to spend more time with his family?

My fear is that Hong Kong’s well-founded, hard-won systems will unavoidably be vandalized amid the political interposition, malicious meddling to the sole advantage of the top leader, unless Cheung, as the new civil service minister, can demonstrate that he has some ironclad integrity.

The new post can be the biggest challenge for Cheung. Not only those who care about their remuneration will follow closely how he discharges his duties, Hongkongers who are vigorous guardians of our core values will also keep a watchful eye on him.

The blatant political demise that Leung brought to Tsang and Tang may also be intended to warn other parties.

All civil servants may feel that Leung has sent out a chilling message.

There are two facts that always make Beijing feel insecure: the first is that the hearts of Hongkongers haven’t returned yet and the second is that the city’s civil servants are not loyal enough.

Except for a few senior officials at directorate levels or above, most civil servants are free to speak out even if their views may run counter to the government stance.

Some unions are pro-democracy, too. Many government employees took part in the Occupy Movement and joined the petition against China’s ruling on the 2017 election methods.

Beijing must be very much bothered.

But in truth, it is just a trivial problem as long as these dissident civil servants continue to do it by the book and perform their duties.

Rather than worrying about losing face, the government instead should reflect on its own part as to why its policies have stirred up such backlash.

Now, if the government is determined to suppress the civil rights of all 170,000 civil servants while quietly retaliating against disobedient ones, members of the civil service will be further torn apart.

Leung also wants his own team, including secretaries and Executive Council members, to know that those who obey him can survive and those who do not will only be ousted.

Rumor has it that Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So Kam-leung was also on Leung’s sacking list because of So’s failure to conform with the official stance on Hong Kong Television Network Ltd’s application for free TV licence.

But it is said that So’s job is safe for now as Leung could not find a suitable person to replace him.

If that is the case, then Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah may be next on the gangplank.

Before taking office, Leung had proposed a deputy financial secretary but that didn’t materialize.

Since Leung became chief executive, there have been noticeable disagreements between Leung and Tsang.

Tsang has just reiterated the importance of fiscal discipline in his blog. Now how would he react if Leung wants to splurge money on raising civil servants’ pay or boosting Hong Kong’s retirement protection in order to gain popularity?

Even though Tsang was given a high-profile handshake by Chinese President Xi Jinping, I wonder if Leung may still want to test Beijing’s trust in him by trying to sack Tsang.

Then, given the political status quo, other members of Leung’s cabinet now have two options only: they can either quit in a dignified way or they can learn from Cheung Chi-kong, who always rushes to Leung’s defense whenever there is a critic.

The entire pro-establishment bloc has also been deterred by Leung’s headstrong expulsion of Tsang despite fierce rancor from local leftists. Leung’s message is clear: with Beijing’s backing, he can just defy anyone within the administration.

His lieutenant Lau Kong-wah is now in charge of the Home Affairs Bureau. Lau will be given a key role to play in coordinating with pro-Beijing candidates for the upcoming District Council and Legislative Council elections.

The goal is to strip the pan-democrats of their critical minority status, something Leung is striving to achieve to requite his mainland bosses.

Securing a second term is all Leung cares about. Harmony in society is probably the last thing on his mind.

We can expect more incidents like this in the next two years. Leung is truly and remarkably a genius when it comes to scheming and political feud, a figure unseen before in Hong Kong.

My only advice is that both democrats and Beijing loyalists who are not big fans of Leung must never relax their vigilance.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 29.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A cardboard cutout of "Leung the monster" is hoisted during a pro-democracy protest. Photo: United Social Press

Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government