19 October 2019
Civil servants find it hard to maintain their political neutrality amid growing pressure for them to follow the official line. Photo: HKEJ
Civil servants find it hard to maintain their political neutrality amid growing pressure for them to follow the official line. Photo: HKEJ

Can Hong Kong civil servants uphold their core values?

During the British colonial era, Hong Kong’s civil servants led by a team of administrative officers were widely recognized for their competence and integrity.

They played an important role in transforming the territory from a small village to an international center of commerce and finance.

But since the handover, our civil servants have found themselves in a situation where they are being made to abandon their long tradition of political neutrality and prove their loyalty to the central authorities.

This was manifested in the government’s push for the national education curriculum, which Beijing wants implemented in the territory.

Administrative officers are expected to help the chief executive and his cabinet in facilitating the government’s policy-making efforts.

But under the administration of Leung Chun-ying, the government prefers to have its policies announced first and then supported with massive documents for presentation to the legislature.

In effect, AOs have shed their old role of helping in the formulation of government policies and are now expected to help the city leadership in pushing its policies to relevant parties. 

As a result, civil servants find it hard to work with CY Leung. In fact, many of them could barely hide their opposition to some of his policies and programs.

It is this negative sentiment among the administrative officers and civil servants toward the chief executive that prompted hundreds of them to gather and bid farewell to Paul Tang, the civil service secretary who was unceremoniously sacked by his boss earlier this year.

Tang was reportedly fired for failing to establish a good relationship between CY Leung’s top officials and the civil service team.

His sacking has raised concerns that Leung may be trying to tighten his grip on the civil servants to push his political agenda, even at the expense of the team’s political neutrality.

Speaking at his farewell dinner, Tang stressed that administrative officers still play an important role in the government.

So many crises in various government depatrments had been settled through the able help of administrative officers.

Tang also noted that the government is relying on the talents of AOs to be able to look deeper into social conflicts.

He then urged the AOs to uphold the core values of civil service, including promotion based on capability, political neutrality and commitment to serving the long-term interests of Hong Kong.

Tang’s remarks could be seen as a reminder to civil servants that they should abide by the core values of their profession and not allow themselves to be used as tools to advance the political agenda of the current administration.

Sadly, some AOs, including some of those who are now principal officials in the CY Leung administration, appear to have forgotten those core values.

As a result, their image before the public has been tarnished considerably.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam had been widely recognized for her competence in dealing with tough issues confronting the government when she served as development secretary under the administration of Donald Tsang.

But as the No. 2 official in CY Leung’s cabinet, Lam has allowed herself to aggressively push and defend the government’s policies even at the expense of her political neutrality.

On Thursday, Lam attended the groundbreaking ceremony for Ocean Park’s Water World after the Legislative Council session was adjourned because of a lack of quorum.

In her speech, she said: “Normally, I would be very disappointed with the adjournment of the Legco meeting, but this time I’m overjoyed, because I can come to my beloved Ocean Park and attend this important function. But this is just my personal view. The SAR government is still disappointed with the adjournment.”

Why was she talking like this in public?

If she were not a CY Leung official, she wouldn’t be speaking like this. But now she is brave enough not to respect Legco. She no longer cares about political neutrality.

But, of course, a principal government official is not the same as an ordinary administrative officer. Principal officials are chosen by the chief executive and their appointments confirmed by Beijing.

They are no longer interested about political neutrality but are only concerned about being politically correct in the eyes of their boss.

Still, AOs who become senior government officials should not abandon their core values, which are intended to guide them in the true path of civil service.

Upholding neutrality could be a tough task for Tang when he was still heading the civil service office.

His boss has been pushing the entire civil service team to wholeheartedly abide by the dictates of Beijing, which means abandoning their neutrality.

Tang’s remarks during the farewell dinner indicated he had chosen not to abide by what CY Leung had suggested him to do.

Clearly, civil servants have found themselves in the middle of the disputes about the political reform bill and the Occupy protests.

Some civil servants expressed their sympathy with the student activists gathered in Admiralty last year, and even wore yellow ribbons to show their support.

But such actions drew criticism from the pro-establishment media, which accused them of abandoning their political neutrality.

What’s clear to the public is that the police force lost their neutrality by their actions against the pro-democracy activists. However, there was no one to remind them to maintain their neutrality at the time.

Even after the 1997 handover, the SAR government maintained the old British colonial government and civil service structure.

But many AOs, after becoming senior government officials, appear to have change their priorities. It seems that it is no longer the public interest that they want to serve but their boss, Beijing, that they want to please.

Such an attitude could ultimately erode their reputation and credibility, and the old colonial system of civil service could give way to a new one to meet the political reality that Hong Kong is under Chinese rule.

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EJ Insight writer