How Carrie Lam can put the destiny of Hong Kong in safe hands

by Regina Ip/April 15,2017/SCMP

Any organisation is only as strong as the people who lead it. In the past, Hong Kong won much kudos for the high quality of its civil service. Their reputation was so high that senior civil servants were prime targets of the united front efforts of the New China News Agency, then the unofficial representatives of the central government in Hong Kong.

Beijing authorities set such great store by retaining the British-trained senior civil servants that all of those at ministerial level were put on the “through train” of service in the Hong Kong special administrative region as principal officials.

In 2002, Tung Chee-hwa expanded the talent pool of the SAR government by introducing a “principal officials accountability system”, in effect a political appointment system whereby the chief executive could appoint to his cabinet whoever met his requirements. This is how various finance and environmental protection experts, and Henry Tang Ying-yen, an industrialist and a possible successor to Tung, got into government at the ministerial level.

In 2007, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen further expanded the system by adding two tiers of “undersecretaries” and “political assistants”. “Undersecretaries” would serve as the second-in-command in a bureau, while “political assistants”, pitched at junior directorate level, were meant to be savvy political operatives shuttling between the executive and legislative branches, lubricating the relations and helping to secure the passage of the government’s bills and motions.

Such efforts should have paid off in broadening the government talent pool. Yet, chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has warned of a “nightmare” for her new administration due to her inability to fill cabinet posts. Where have all the talents gone?

Fifteen years after the city’s experiment with political appointments, a few facts have emerged. Straitlaced civil servants are often lampooned for their lack of vision and innovation, but many have proved to be adaptive and resilient, with a knack to move across different policy areas with competence – thanks to their years of training as the elite general management cadre of the service. A good example is veteran trouble-shooter Michael Suen Ming-yeung, who retired in 2012 as secretary for education after serving in a wide range of challenging areas.

In comparison, the new generation of political appointees have a much less impressive survival rate. Since 2002, few have worked beyond one term.

One of the best-known examples, high-profile financial heavyweight Antony Leung Kam-chung, actually served as financial secretary for two years only, from May 2001 to July 2003. Read more…

 

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