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Published: 00:18, March 11, 2022 | Updated: 10:02, March 11, 2022
Pandemic makes civil service reform a must
By Regina Ip
Published:00:18, March 11, 2022 Updated:10:02, March 11, 2022 By Regina Ip

In recent meetings with Hong Kong delegates to the National People’s Congress and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference during the two sessions in Beijing, Vice-Premier Han Zheng reiterated his deep concerns about the severity of the fifth wave of the coronavirus outbreak in Hong Kong.

As of Wednesday, 538,602 positive cases and 2,656 deaths were reported, 40 times the sum total of positive cases and 12 times the numbers of deaths reported in the first four waves, a staggering upsurge that has shocked the nation and thrust Hong Kong into crisis mode. Particularly heart-wrenching are the high fatalities involving the unvaccinated elderly and small children.

Across the city, many complain that they are not getting the help they need from the special administrative region government. Hotlines are unanswered, and ambulances take hours to arrive. Those with severe symptoms suffer long waits outside hospitals; while others with milder symptoms have to heal themselves at home by taking traditional Chinese medicine or painkillers.

Structural reform to change the values and mindset of the civil service is definitely necessary when this storm has passed, and bold and inspiring leadership will be necessary

Rightly or wrongly, there is a strong perception in the community, particularly among the grassroots, that the government is not functioning to meet the people’s needs. Such a perception is a damning indictment of a civil service that used to be regarded as one of the world’s finest — clean, efficient, and best at getting things done.

As Vice-Premier Han has said, fighting the fifth wave is not the work of a single person. The entire civil service, indeed the entire community, needs to work together to achieve the best results. The government is now deploying civil servants who have been on the sidelines to relieve the burden of front-line staff. Staff from the Environmental Protection Department, and the Health Department’s Tobacco and Alcohol Control Office, among others, are being sent to infected areas. Certainly the right move, but mobilization of the whole of government to join in the fight has not come easy.

The difficulty in mobilization has to do with the civil service’s outdated but entrenched organizational structure, systems, procedures and culture, which are no longer fit for the purpose of meeting modern challenges. During the British era, the Hong Kong government was organized on functional lines like an archetypal Weberian bureaucratic polity. Each government branch (now renamed “bureau”) or department was given a clearly defined schedule of responsibilities. “Subject officers” in charge of specific schedules took pride in mastering the technical details, and not trespassing onto the schedule of responsibilities of others. Working according to statutes and established procedures was the golden rule, and “Mind your own business” the widely accepted credo.

After 1997, political pressures generated by the rise of popular democracy led civil servants to become extra-cautious in accepting responsibilities, in case new duties resulted in new blames and new calls for accountability. To protect themselves from what is perceived as unfair criticisms, civil servants excel in eschewing additional responsibilities, unless matched by additional pay or allowances or directed by a high-level authority. This risk-averse culture prevents civil servants from rising to new challenges by responding quickly and accepting new responsibilities.

The British tradition of rewarding expatriate civil servants with handsome salaries and allowances for working in Hong Kong also bred a penchant for seeking regular salary scale reviews, in addition to the annual pay level adjustment exercise, as a means of enhancing civil service morale. Civil service unions react strongly if awards are made to any “grade” (that is, a specialized cadre of civil servants) that upset perceived relativity and balance.

Hong Kong’s civil service undoubtedly deserves recognition for being a largely clean and non-corrupt service, but the accent on pay and allowances and salary scale reviews has caused financial considerations and career advancement to predominate in the minds of most civil servants. The emphasis on self-protection and aggrandizement stands in stark contrast to the much greater spirit of service and sacrifice of civil servants on the Chinese mainland.

These considerations continued to play out in the government’s effort to assemble a sizeable force to undertake emergency duties arising from the pandemic. The government felt obliged to pay volunteers, recruited mostly from retired civil servants, on scales benchmarked to civil service pay. That means the payments are substantial and exorbitant compared to the meager pay most Hong Kong people with midlevel management duties in the private sector get. Payments linked to civil service scales should not be devised to lure retired civil servants to serve the city in its hour of need, considering that there are thousands of community volunteers who work tirelessly to serve their infected constituents for no pay at all. Many of these community volunteers, with little protection, have ended up becoming infected themselves because of their proximity to the sick and needy.

Vice-Premier Han is absolutely right that in this moment of crisis, when Hong Kong is facing an existentialist threat, all civil servants, indeed all public servants (that is, including those who work in non-government public organizations), should join hands to help the government overcome this pernicious fifth wave. Structural reform to change the values and mindset of the civil service is definitely necessary when this storm has passed, and bold and inspiring leadership will be necessary. But in the meantime, vanquishing the pandemic must be our overriding mission, as General Secretary Xi Jinping has directed. All of us who have benefited from Hong Kong’s prosperity, and the massive and continuous support from our motherland, should give back to our community at this critical juncture.

Developers have contributed land; ordinary citizens have contributed their time and effort as volunteers; private hospitals have agreed to help by caring for the elderly and patients with mild symptoms. Let us heed our national leaders’ call, and give our best in subduing the fifth wave.

The author is a member of the Executive Council and the Legislative Council.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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