Former civil service minister Paul Tang Kwok-wai has said that ministers and police should refrain from commenting on politics. He also talked about his unexpected departure from the government two weeks ago, saying that “some things in life happen very quickly”.

In an RTHK programme on Sunday, Tang was asked to respond to an allegation that Hong Kong’s civil servants have not “developed a sense of belonging to mainland China”. Tang said that civil servants are required to maintain political neutrality in order to give objective and impartial advice to the government.

But civil servants — except for ministers, administrative officers, political assistants and information officers — are allowed to have opinions on politics as long as these do not pose a conflict of interest.

Tang admitted that he became concerned about how to draw a clear line between ensuring civil servants’ political neutrality and protecting their freedom of expression during last year’s pro-democracy Occupy protests.

The pro-establishment camp has accused Tang of not punishing civil servants who showed support for the Occupy demonstrations. Pictures circulated on the internet show that police also expressed their opinions about the protests with impunity.

A police commander displayed a blue ribbon symbolising support for police and objection to the Occupy protests last year. Photo: Post 852.

It is the first time Tang has spoken with journalists after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced a cabinet reshuffle last month. On July 21, Leung said that Tang had stepped down due to “unforeseeable family circumstances”.

But citing “sources close to the government”, several pro-government newspapers said that Tang was fired because he had rejected the chief executive’s request to give civil servants substantial pay rises in an attempt to solicit their support, thereby giving the impression that Tang was not cooperative.

Reports also said that Tang had failed to forge good relationships with civil servants’ unions since his appointment in 2012. A representative for one such union said that the civil service suffered low morale under Tang’s leadership.

Former civil service minister Paul Tang. Photo: GovHK.

Tang, who had served the government for 37 years, said on Sunday that he had not expected to retire before the end of his term in 2017. He said his family agreed that it was time to go. “In life, some things happen very quickly. It was indeed a rush decision and I need to readjust my state of mind,” said the former minister.

Tang also said the government had made an exception to its usual policy in the last two years by expanding the civil service by 1.5 percent as opposed to the one percent norm. He warned that the government should not “blindly” expand its civil service, as it would increase the burden on public expenses.

He denied he was on bad terms with the chief executive, and commended incoming minister Clement Cheung Wan-ching for his abilities. He also urged Cheung to protect the core values of the civil service system.

The cabinet reshuffle last month has left many questions unanswered, including whether the personnel changes were related to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s plan to prepare for reelection. People have also wondered why an undersecretary with close ties to the pro-Beijing DAB party was appointed to the post of home affairs minister controlling most district-level resources, and whether the apparently arbitrary and nontransparent reshuffle indicated a broken system of accountability.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.