Why we may see more walkouts by district officers at DC meetings

January 20, 2020 14:27
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung (first from left) has justified walkout moves by DOs when the officers faced difficult situations during district council meetings. Photo: Bloomberg

As 17 out of the 18 District Councils are now controlled by the “pan-yellow bloc” and with many of the newly elected members being political rookies who aren’t afraid of “pushing the envelope” when confronting officials at DC meetings, many in the government are now having a tough time as they try to come up with a strategy to deal with the “young guns”.

Amid this situation, it appears some District Officers (DOs), who are government representatives at the district level under the Home Affairs Bureau, have come up with some “outside-the-box” counter-measures.

Last Wednesday, when Tai Po District Council members were electing a chairperson of their “Security and Constitutional Affairs Committee”, Eunice Chan Hau-man, the Tai Po District Officer present at the meeting, suddenly staged a walkout with her colleagues on the grounds that the terms of reference of the committee had violated the District Councils Ordinance.

Elsewhere, last Thursday, when members of the Central and Western District Council (C&W DC) tried to move a privilege motion denouncing Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung who was also attending that meeting, Susanne Wong Ho Wing-sze, the Central and Western DO, instantly walked out with the “Big Chief” and other officials as a protest.

According to sources, the walkouts, as a form of uncompromising counter-measures against the provocative moves made by pro-democracy DC members, had been endorsed and green-lighted by Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung himself beforehand.

The sources tell us that the 18 DOs had earlier held a closed-door meeting with Cheung during which some attendees raised the question about how much power the administration could delegate to DOs for “defusing” difficult and unexpected situations at DC meetings.

Some DOs were worried that they could risk coming under public fire or even face legal challenge if they hastily arbitrate some controversial decisions made at the DC meetings.

Eventually, someone put forward a suggestion: when any controversial development arises at the DC meeting, the safest way for DOs to stay out of trouble is to stage an immediate walkout along with their colleagues.

By doing so, the officers can not only avoid arbitrating any dispute at the meeting, they can also dissociate themselves and the government from any contentious motion passed by the DC.

It is said that this suggestion was approved by the Chief Secretary at the closed-door meeting.

On Saturday (January 18), Cheung gave a live interview to Commercial Radio Hong Kong on the walkout issue, during which he said that both the Tai Po and C&W District Officers had made good judgment calls by leaving the two DC meetings.

The chief secretary defended the officers' moves, saying the walkouts were completely justified. In one case, the “Security and Constitutional Affairs Committee” set up by the Tai Po DC amounted to overstepping of the parameters laid down by the District Councils Ordinance, he said.

Having sought legal opinions, government officials decided not to participate in such event.

As for the other case, Cheung said the wording of the motion moved by the C&W DC to condemn the police commissioner amounted to going counter to the truth. Since the C&W DC chairperson was unable to make an impartial decision on the issue, the DO had no choice but to depart the meeting, Cheung said.

Under most circumstances, only senior Administrative Officers (AOs) will be appointed as District Officers. To avoid derailing their civil service careers, most AOs wouldn’t dare to take any “outlandish” action.

As such, a government figure has predicted that since the walkouts last week have been endorsed by the top brass, other DOs are likely to follow suit whenever pro-democracy District Councilors are up to something unexpected again during DC meetings in the coming days.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 17

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.