A RECENT ARTICLE in the Economist titled “Stay neutral, love the party” said that the Central Government of China had “no abundant trust” in Hong Kong’s civil service. It said Chief Executive-elect Mr. John Lee Ka-chiu would appoint fewer administrative officers (AOs), the elite rank of civil servants to be his cabinet members. And as civil servants need to swear allegiance to the HKSAR and study the Basic Law and the National Security Law, the number of recent applicants had dropped. Unfortunately, the arguments put forward were patchy and even self-contradictory.
The article stressed in the second paragraph that the Central Government “does not have abundant trust” in civil servants in the city, but went on to mention the widely-acknowledged fact that all civil servants, except British ones, underwent a smooth transition from British rule to the HKSAR government during reunification in 1997.
Let’s bear in mind that former Chief Executive Donald Tsang and incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam also worked as AOs before serving as political appointees. The Central Government has clearly followed the principle of meritocracy on appointments of officials based on their capabilities.
CATHOLICISM NOT AN ISSUE
Also, the article highlighted the fact that Mr. Lee, along with a few former Chief Executives, are Roman Catholic, which is not an attribute welcomed by Beijing. To those who know a bit of Hong Kong’s history, Catholic schools have well established in Hong Kong for decades, including many top schools in this city. The first Catholic school for Chinese boys opened in 1863.
Nobody would be surprised if a student became Catholic after studying for six or even 12 years from primary school onwards. John Lee and Carrie Lam both studied in Catholic secondary schools. In fact, the appointments of senior officials with religious beliefs are solid testament that the Central Government is in strong support of Hong Kong people to enjoy religious freedom, as enshrined under the Basic Law.
SOME CIVIL SERVANTS PROTESTED
The article also discussed AOs, highlighting the fact that some civil servants had joined violent rallies against the government in 2019 and some even went on strike. The incumbent Civil Service Code clearly states “civil servants shall serve the Chief Executive and the Government of the day with total loyalty”. It also stipulates that “civil servants shall support and implement policies and take actions, once decided by the Government of the day, fully and faithfully irrespective of their personal views.”
Regrettably, the article fails to ask why it seems no disciplinary actions have been taken for those defying civil servants, as there is no mention of any civil servants being penalized for violating the Codes in the annual reports of the Public Service Commission, which handles disciplinary cases.
Loyalty to the country and its people applies to all civil servants, as the favourite saying about political neutrality goes, “serving the government of the day”. This also requires the limitation of freedom of expression and political participation of civil servants.
COMPARISON WITH OTHERS
Above all, Hong Kong’s civil servants have enjoyed no less freedom than their US and UK counterparts. In Britain, depending on the grades and job nature, different levels of restrictions on participating political activities are imposed. British civil servants need to “maintain political impartiality by taking every care to avoid any embarrassment to Ministers which could result from bringing themselves to public notice in controversy”.
Political activities are widely defined, including taking part in elections, canvassing votes for candidates, speaking in public on matters of politics and even expressing views in the press or in books. Civil servants have to seek permission from superiors in their departments for taking part in political activities and that the permission can be withdrawn at any time upon violations. In contrast, Hong Kong civil servants require no prior permission.
RESTRICTIONS IN UNITED STATES
In the US, the practice of political neutrality in the civil servants has been reliant on comprehensive laws, enforcement agencies and a pool of court cases. The Hatch Act of 1939, which regulates political participation, applies to all employees wholly funded by the federal government. With the establishment of the Office of Special Counsel, it has mapped out a meticulously-drafted guideline to exert restrictions for federal employees to join political activities and limits them from posting content on partisan political activities and elections online or via social media platforms.
The article also attributed the low application rate for civil servants to the requirement of swearing allegiance to Basic Law and the Special Administrative Region. It is not uncommon for civil servants of western countries to swear allegiance to uphold the constitutions in their countries. Take the Federal Civil Service Act in Germany as an example, Article 60 of the Act has stipulated that all German civil servants should serve the people as a whole, while performing their duties impartially based on public interests. Article 64 states German civil servants have to uphold the constitution and the country’s institutions.
LOYALTY A PREREQUISITE
While “neutrality” may sound contradictory to “loyalty”, political loyalty is in fact a prerequisite for political neutrality for the case of civil servants, as the widely quoted phrase of “serving the government of the day” suggests. All governments elected according to constitutional law (in Hong Kong’s case, the Basic Law) should receive unconditional and unswerving support from all civil servants.
While a handful of civil servants in Hong Kong acted contrary to the loyalty requirements of the Civil Service Code in 2019, the vast majority of civil servants are professional, loyal and devoted to fulfill their duties. Therefore, I hope that the next Administration, headed by Mr. John Lee, will continue to uphold these good attributes, emphasise their understanding of the country and at the same time enhancing their efficiencies in tackling deep-seated problems of Hong Kong.
Henry Ho is chairman and founder of One Country Two Systems Youth Forum, a think tank.