On July 1, 2012, the 15th anniversary of the handover, Leung Chun-ying took office as Hong Kong’s third chief executive. With Carrie Lam appointed as chief secretary for administration, the Leung administration came to represent a break in bureaucratic tradition for many civil servants.
Slow, meticulous drafting of policy papers and public consultation was replaced by the immediate announcement of “five major policy measures and six key initiatives,” such as HK$2,200 grants for the elderly and ten measures to cool the housing market.
Leung allegedly demanded these quick-fire policies from his administrative officers – the elite policy-making cohort – within 100 days of him taking power.
Speaking to HKFP, retired veteran civil servant Kwok described Leung’s administration as a game of football: “The match kicked off… Leung made the orders, and his subordinates implemented them.”
He said that Hong Kong’s previous leaders had a drastically different approach to governance. “Before 1997, [the British officials] would have an idea, ask their subordinates to have a think and write a proposal… the boss would pick one of the recommendations, and ask for public consultation.”
“[The first chief executive] Tung Chee-hwa wouldn’t dare to distrust the civil service system, therefore a lot of his plans disappeared into a black hole.”
Likewise, when 30-year-old Fiona first entered government during the Donald Tsang administration, she had been surprised by the rigidity of its procedures. “For example, if someone found that their personal details in the computer system were wrong… we could have simply pressed a button to change them,” she told HKFP. “But everything must be on record, so they would make a request, write it down, pass it to a manager… and then return it.”
“The procedures consist of writing policy papers after consulting bureaus and departments,” added 25-year-old administrative officer Michael. He said that changes in details that he made would be reviewed by his superiors at every level of the bureaucracy.
“It is very difficult to be corrupt or to make a mistake – that is, if you follow all the rules,” added Kwok. “This wastes time, but we’re talking about public funds here.”
Leung’s style of governance was not the only source of pressure for Hong Kong’s civil servants in recent years. As the city’s political divisions deepened, opposition lawmakers in the Legislative Council began to frequently filibuster controversial policies.
In response, the government began bundling both controversial and non-controversial motions together, so that even livelihood issues would remain in deadlock if the delay tactics continued.
In March, the Wang Chau housing project – which threatened to evict 200 villagers – was passed within a bundled LegCo motion of 9,000 funding requests.
Michael pointed out that legislators had raised a staggering 7,321 questions in response to the 2017-18 government budget announcement. “If the government divides them up, every department has to respond to hundreds of questions. And who answers them? It’s the civil servants. So there’s definitely a heavier workload.”
It was in this political atmosphere that chief secretary Lam announced the construction of the Hong Kong Palace Museum at the West Kowloon Cultural District on December 23, 2016.
Before that day, Lam had already negotiated the transfer of Forbidden City treasures with the Beijing Palace Museum, obtained HK$3.5 billion in funds from the Jockey Club, and appointed Rocco Yim as architect without any public tender. To the shock of many civil servants interviewed by HKFP, consultation had been carried out neither with the public, nor even with the advisory panel of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.
The handling of the Palace Museum deal became a focus point for Lam’s critics during her chief executive election campaign. The week before the vote, local paper Apple Daily published an open letter penned apparently by a high-ranking civil servant, who alleged that she disregards set procedures and ignores the advice of her subordinates.
“In recent years, administrative officers have reminded her that some of her decisions would be challenged by judicial reviews,” read the letter. “But she brushed them off for ‘getting in her way.’ Many people are thinking: Why has Carrie Lam changed so much?”
The first judicial review against the museum was lodged in January. Then came another in February. In March, a legislator announced that the deal was under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Retired civil servant Kwok told HKFP that Lam should have put the Palace Museum proposal before the Legislative Council. “There are set procedures. The most you can do is halt the filibuster, like the pro-establishment camp often does. But before that, you have to allow them to filibuster for a while, you can’t halt it straight away. This is the spirit of democracy.”
Lam had defended the secrecy of her museum negotiations, saying that she “did not want to create an embarrassing situation” where the proposal is rejected after consultation. Groups such as the Alliance in Support of Hong Kong Palace Museum also described the project as a pleasant surprise to for Hongkongers.
“These are not valid excuses, but Lam made them anyway,” responded Kwok. “She is very familiar with what the procedures are. By breaking with old procedures in various ways, you can be faster and more efficient in achieving your goal.”
“If you’re a pro-establishment supporter, you would say this is a good thing. But if you’re not, you would say: ‘What the hell? I couldn’t do this during my time [in government], why can you?’”
Last June, Lam also encountered controversy over her refusal to apologise or fault any government officials over the Lead Water Scandal, when water supplies at several housing estates were found to contain dangerously high levels of the chemical.
“[Despite] an inadequate awareness by government departments and flaws in the monitoring system, this does not necessarily equate to particular officials not following laws or neglecting duties. Because of that, they do not have to bear personal responsibility,” she said at a press conference.
In his column, former secretary for civil service Joseph Wong suggested that Lam’s refusal to fault any particular official would undermine set procedures. Introduced in 2002, the Principal Officials Accountability System converted secretaries and bureau chiefs from regular civil servants into contract-based, political appointees – who were no longer part of the civil service bureaucracy.
The reforms meant that the highest-level officials would have to bear individual – not collective – responsibility for decision-making. “The clock has turned back by 20 years,” lamented Wong in the wake of Lam’s press conference.
Overall, administrative officer Michael attributed Lam’s mix of achievements and controversies to her personality, rather than the speed of her rise up the civil servant ladder or the darkening political environment.
“It’s common for someone to think one way about a policy, and then when they rise to the top of the system, they think another way… You have to take into account political considerations and public perception. It’s not just a case of whether something is good or bad anymore.”
“But when you talk about [Lam’s] style of work, she’s probably always been like that – brave, but will stress people out.”
Continue to Part III: Success or hubris?
The names of sources in this article have been changed to preserve their anonymity.