Chief executive candidate and ex-judge Woo Kwok-hing has promised to push for the legislation of archives laws if he is elected.

“If there is no archives law, you may not know what officials have done because there is no record of their work. There may not be documents recording the reasons behind their policy decisions,” Woo said.

Woo Kwok-hing
Woo Kwok-hing. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

The former judge made the remarks at a forum hosted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association. His opponents John Tsang and Carrie Lam also spoke at the event, but in separate sessions.

Currently, Hong Kong does not have archives laws to ensure government official records are kept and accessible to the public. The Law Reform Commission is working on a report on archives law and access to information.

Wang Chau debacle

Woo said the lack of an archives law would enable civil servants to evade responsibility if they made mistakes. “I think that government records – especially on policy decisions – should be publicly accessible.”

He cited the example of the Wang Chau controversy, which surrounds an allegation that the government scaled back a public housing plan from 17,000 to 4,000 flats after rural leaders “soft-lobbied” officials.

In response to public enquiries, the housing chief said the government did not keep records of an informal meeting that led to the decision.

Veteran journalist Allan Au Ka-lun, who moderated the forum, asked Woo how he would address the resistance among civil servants against the proposed archives law.

Au Ka-lun
Allan Au Ka-lun. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Woo replied that all of the civil servants he worked with in public office kept meeting records. “I have never heard of cases in which meetings were not recorded,” he said. “Only civil servants with things to hide are afraid of archives laws.”

Carrie Lam

In her manifesto, Lam said she holds a “positive position” on passing the law and promised to follow up on the issue after the Law Reform Commission releases a report.

When a representative from the citizen-led Archives Action Group asked Lam to elaborate on her position, Lam said: “I wrote that paragraph especially for your group, because over the years as chief secretary, I was in charge of the public records policy and the Public Records Office.”

“It is very important for any government, for any city, for any country, to keep very good archives because nowadays we have to read archives to know and understand how a policy was formulated.”

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam greeted by protesters outside the forum venue. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

She said she wanted to give the group and the public “confidence” that she would act on recommendations from the Law Reform Commission.

Lam added that she did not make the same promise regarding a proposed law on open access to information because there were more stakeholders involved, whereas she considered archives laws to be an “internal matter” as there is no major objection in society in this regard.

John Tsang

Tsang was asked why he did not mention the legislation of archives laws in his platform.

The candidate replied that he is also committed to promoting the law, but he could not include it in his platform because “there was too much to write about.”

john tsang
John Tsang. Photo: Stand News.

“My platform was originally 200-pages long. At first, I thought 20 to 30 pages would be enough, but the final version is now 75-pages long. It is very difficult to write down everything I want to do,” he said.

See also: Carrie Lam’s fiscal philosophy is nothing new, leadership rival John Tsang says at forum

The three candidates have not directly debated each other. Last week, Lam and Woo faced-off at a debate hosted by politician Ronny Tong’s think tank Path of Democracy, but Tsang declined to attend the event.

The three candidates will have their first head-to-head on Sunday at the invitation of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. They will again debate each other next Tuesday at a forum hosted by seven media outlets.

The small-circle chief executive election takes place on March 26.

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