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Published: 00:09, October 22, 2021 | Updated: 10:13, October 22, 2021
Key govt posts must go to 'capable civil servants'
By Tu Haiming
Published:00:09, October 22, 2021 Updated:10:13, October 22, 2021 By Tu Haiming

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor delivered her last Policy Address earlier this month, in which she noted that senior officials are crucial to maintaining government efficiency and that the secretary for the civil service should examine the current system of appointments and promotions to make sure all senior officials are selected for their capabilities and foresight. 

Such a bureaucratic system is best summarized as political meritocracy and should be treated as a guiding principle for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government.

What are the criteria for picking the right person for each office? The answer was given by Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, in a speech he delivered on July 16. In that speech, he spelled out five requirements for HKSAR government senior officials according to the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong”. The requirements can be seen as five aspects of patriotic excellence, namely, excel in fully and precisely implementing “one country, two systems” in administering Hong Kong, as a staunch patriot does; excel in resolving various contradictions and problems that hinder Hong Kong’s development, as an accountable patriot does; excel in meeting popular demands with tangible results, as a compassionate and caring patriot does; excel in uniting people from all walks of life, as an inspiring patriotic leader does; and excel in doing everything their jobs require, as a responsible patriot does.

These aspects of patriotic excellence cover more than virtues and capabilities. They also expect patriotic administrators to “apply strategic thinking and an eye for the big picture with an inquisitive and scientific approach to decision-making, never shy away from challenges in discharging their duties, with courage, determination and resolve to overcome whatever obstacle is in their way.” Apparently these requirements are too much for the “Mr Nice Guy” type who tends to step back or aside rather than facing challenges head-on, while paying lip service to those who do the real work. Anyone who is good only at talking instead of working, and never matches their titles or credentials with quality performance should be ruled out of consideration for government offices.

Let’s look at the principal officials of the HKSAR government and determine those who are capable and those who are not. If one believes the capable ones far outnumber incompetent ones, how would that explain the rather low efficiency of the government? Apart from obstructions by anti-China troublemakers, can anyone honestly say all principal officials have done their best as administrators? If not, where have they fallen short?

There are some capable ones among senior government officials but not many. During the “black revolution” in 2019, then-secretary for security John Lee Ka-chiu did a remarkable job coordinating the disciplinary forces of the HKSAR in protecting the public. In my opinion, he is a capable administrator in his own right. Similarly, veteran senior police officer Chris Tang Ping-keung stepped up to the challenge as police commissioner at a critical moment in efforts to stop rampant violence and successfully ended violence at the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong. Those provided strong proof of capabilities. Secretary for Finance Paul Chan Mo-po took multiple measures to help small businesses and residents in distress amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Those temporary financial assistance measures worked quite effectively in easing the impact of quarantine and partial lockdowns and showed Chan’s quality as a capable patriotic administrator.

Today the situation has changed, and it is fair to say the number of capable senior officials has grown, though not nearly enough to meet the expectations of the public as well as the central authorities. As more and greater challenges pop up in the coming years, the top administrators must work harder in keeping the HKSAR government shipshape. It is a daunting task that only staunch patriots with compassion and a caring heart as well as talent to inspire and unite people from all walks of life can be trusted to accomplish. They are expected to prove they have what it takes in terms of commitment and foresight to excel. And they must not overly rely on central government instructions and support, either. In this author’s humble opinion, the senior officials of the HKSAR government have their work cut out for them like they have never imagined. 

That means only the right and capable person for the job should be put in charge of each government office, and anyone who fails to meet the five requirements should be held accountable for their missteps. This is the only way to attract more capable talent into the civil service who aspire to excel in challenging situations that come with power and responsibilities. When it comes to the five requirements for patriotic administrators, there is no alternative route or room for speculation.

The current civil service system is largely inherited from the era of British rule and still suffers from a lot of constraints born of the colonial mentality, such as political bias disguised as civil servant neutrality. Some officials remain ambiguous about patriotism with political neutrality as an excuse, and often choose playing safe over fighting for a positive result to avoid risks in their bureaucratic career. They cannot satisfy the five requirements and therefore should be kept away from public responsibilities. With this daunting task in mind, the HKSAR government needs to improve the bureaucratic work processes by removing as much red tape as possible.   

Chief Executive Lam offers in her last Policy Address to “review the current civil servant selection and appointment mechanism”, which is a good idea on her part as the top administrator of Hong Kong. The question is what measures must be taken to accomplish such a critical system overhaul of the civil service juggernaut. The next-term HKSAR government better not let Hong Kong society or the central authorities down in this monumental undertaking.

The author is a Hong Kong member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and chairman of the Hong Kong New Era Development Thinktank.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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