In his landmark speech delivered at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland, President Xi Jinping set out a new vision for the implementation of “one country, two systems” in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, reiterating Beijing’s support for the SAR in maintaining its unique position and strengths. The president put forward “four proposals” for the new administration; mainly, improving its level of governance, enhancing the city’s momentum of growth, addressing the public’s concerns, and safeguarding community harmony and social stability. What is needed now for the new administration is to consider how to convert President Xi’s expectations into concrete “to-do lists”.
Improving the level of governance means that first of all, there should be a comprehensive reform of the civil service to rid itself of its bureaucratic mentality and buck-passing culture. Unfortunately, as a result of the unwarranted praise heaped on the civil service establishment over the years by then-governor Chris Patten, who kept saying that the Hong Kong civil service was the best in the world, he thereby encouraged our civil servants to become ever more complacent, resisting all attempts at reform under the pretexts of “big market, small government” and “positive non-interventionism”, while taking a narrow view of their jobs, and mulishly refusing to explore a productive partnership with their mainland counterparts. To make matters worse, a number of “time bombs” were embedded by the departing colonial administration in the succeeding SAR government, by the introduction of human rights legislation and the establishment of Office of the Privacy Commmissioner for Personal Data and the Equal Opportunities Commission, etc. It seems that their objective was not to promote human rights at the final stage of colonial administration but to sow seeds of disharmony and to create obstacles for the SAR government, thereby hindering the development of Hong Kong.
Our civil service’s shortcomings were painfully exposed in its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in the last two years, and many of the government’s initiatives in tackling the pandemic were obstructed or stonewalled because of so-called privacy concerns.
One way to remove the unnecessary obstacles is to put these two commissions under an executive-led commission. It can be called the Human Rights Commission, to be placed under the supervision of the secretary for home and youth affairs.
As President Xi has often said in the last few years, “to forge good steel, the blacksmith must first be in possession of great personal strength”. This means that for the civil service to function effectively, one must first exercise strong internal discipline before it can put its house in order.
Meanwhile, all government departments and individual officers should be told to “think outside the box” for innovative ideas in response to President Xi’s “four proposals”. Departmental workshops attended by middle and senior management should be held to study the speech, and to come up with a comprehensive five-year plan of “to-do lists”
It is no secret that among the 180,000-strong civil service establishment, there remains not a small number that still harbors anti-China sentiments, despite having been required to take an oath of allegiance to the SAR government and the Basic Law. Many are known to have taken part in anti-government demonstrations in 2019, and they are lying low now but ready to inflict further damage on the SAR government at the first opportunity. To guard against such an eventuality, we need to introduce an effective mechanism to identify and expel these bad apples, if they still refuse to rehabilitate.
One way is for all government departments to set up an effective and well-resourced internal investigation unit, similar to the one in the Independent Commission Against Corruption. It is headed by a senior professional (equivalent to the rank of senior police superintendent) and has a staff of over 40 officers. The unit should be prepared to take up both public and internal complaints and carry out thorough investigations even if the source is anonymous provided the tip-off shows significant promise. It must also take a proactive approach in monitoring staff behavior and integrity. At the same time, there should be a vetting system for all recruits as well as serving officers at regular intervals, such as every three years or upon promotion. The vetting will ensure that only genuine patriots are allowed to stay or to be promoted.
One of the common public grievances is that when they lodge a complaint with a government department, very often the latter would simply deflect the complaint, claiming it is the responsibility of another department. This typical buck-passing often frustrates the complainant, who is then forced to go around in circles among government departments, with the result that the complaint is never satisfactorily resolved. Clearly, the public-complaint system is due for a serious shakeup. Government departments should be told that they must take up any public complaint, even if it falls outside their jurisdiction, and refer it to the relevant department while informing the complainant accordingly. This has been the best practice of the ICAC in dealing with noncorruption complaints. It is suggested that at the same time, the Office of the Ombudsman should be alerted, which would ensure that there is no buck-passing and that there is always eventually one government department that would take up the public complaint and act as required.
All government departments should be told in no uncertain terms that the days of “business as usual” are over and that they are required to take a hard look into their respective departments for areas due for improvement or radical reform. Every department should carry out a comprehensive review of their numerous antiquated operation procedures that could pose potential obstacles to realizing the new administration’s emphasis on results-oriented action, especially in land and development areas. In tandem with this objective, an outside inspection team should be brought in, similar to the mainland’s Central Inspection Team from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which conducts governance integrity inspections all over the country, often unearthing major shortcomings. In the HKSAR, a comparable joint inspection team can comprise officers from the Efficiency Unit, the Audit Department, the Office of the Ombudsman, as well as officers from the Corruption Prevention Department of the ICAC, which has a truly tried and tested expert team.
Meanwhile, all government departments and individual officers should be told to “think outside the box” for innovative ideas in response to President Xi’s “four proposals”. Departmental workshops attended by middle and senior management should be held to study the speech, and to come up with a comprehensive five-year plan of “to-do lists”. These lists should be placed in a computerized program with regular progress reports, so that they can readily be monitored by bureau secretaries, and perhaps even by the public.
There are hundreds of government advisory boards and committees. Perhaps there should be a review of their overall performance to enhance their effectiveness by identifying areas for improvement. One way is to form a pyramid of committees, taking after the ICAC, which has institutionalized such a successful setup. The ICAC has three functional advisory committees, each for its three functional departments: the Operations Review Committee, to advise the Operations Department; the Corruption Prevention Advisory Committee, for the Corruption Prevention Department; and the Citizens Advisory Committee, for the Community Relations Department. The chairpersons of these committees become members of the ICAC Steering Committee, the Advisory Committee on Corruption. If the advisory committees are organized in a similar pyramid fashion for each bureau, this would ensure the bureau secretary can have a handy advisory board to provide him with sound all-around advice regarding his job.
The Election Committee, with its 1,500 members being the creme de la creme of society, should have a role to play to help improve the city’s governance. They can be organized in groups in accordance with their respective expertise to form the appropriate advisory group for each bureau secretary, and they can then regularly meet to offer their expert advice to the secretaries.
Finally, there is one simple but far-reaching communitywide change the chief executive can introduce to improve people’s lives and harmonize our society. That is to introduce a five-day workweek across the board. Hong Kong residents reportedly work the longest hours in the world, which takes its inevitable toll on family life and personal health. The mainland has practiced a five-day work week for years, which reaps dividends in its economy, community harmony and family life. There is no reason why a developed city like Hong Kong cannot benefit its residents by shortening its work days, which will also boost consumption, and thereby its economy.
As President Xi said in his speech, “the next five years will be crucial for Hong Kong to break new ground and launch a new takeoff”. The next 100 days is indeed most crucial to ensure the new administration gets off to a successful flying start.
The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.