Lawmakers and a concern group on archives have prepared a bill on preserving public records for the consideration of the justice department, and have asked for the legislature’s permission to discuss it – though they admit their chances are slim.

There is no archival law in Hong Kong. The government has often been criticised for destroying files, though then-chief secretary Carrie Lam previously claimed that only documents without historical value are approved for destruction. Public access to archives is also limited.

The move to table a new Public Records Bill is a collaboration between lawmakers Tanya Chan, Dennis Kwok, and Charles Mok, and the Archives Action Group led by former Government Records Service director Simon Chu Fook-keung.

Dennis Kwok Charles Mok Tanya Cha
From left: Lawmakers Dennis Kwok, Charles Mok, Tanya Chan. Photo: Charles Mok.

The Law Reform Commission set up two sub-committees in 2013 to look into an archives law and access to information but there has been no public progress. The lawmakers and the group then decided to file a private members’ bill at the Legislative Council.

“Implementing laws to protect the government archives will help citizens monitor the government and discover the truth,” said Mok.

“Unlike the lead water incident and issues concerning the Wang Chau development and the Palace Museum in West Kowloon Cultural District, with this Bill the government will be compelled to disclose information of public concern. We have waited far too long for such a law, especially when around 100 countries across the world have already implemented their archive laws.”

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Mok said the chance of a private members’ bill in LegCo was “very slim,” but he said they wished to raise public concerns and discussion at the legislature.

Article 74 of the Basic Law stipulates that private members’ bills can only be tabled if they “do not relate to public expenditure or political structure or the operation of the government.” The written consent of the Chief Executive is also required before bills relating to government policies are introduced.

The group behind the bill sent the English version to the Law Draftsman of the Department of Justice for review on April 27. The three lawmakers have jointly written to the LegCo Panel on Constitutional Affairs and requested a discussion.

Carrie Lam, now the chief executive-elect, pledged during her campaign to implement archive law. Mok said he will press Lam to keep her promise and ensure the government is open and transparent.

Charles Mok Connie Lo Simon Chu
From left: Lawmaker Charles Mok, documentary maker Connie Lo, Archives Action Group member and former Government Records Service director Simon Chu Fook-keung, at the screening of documentary “Vanished Archives.” Photo: Charles Mok

The bill’s goal is to outline a proper management system for public archives and records generated from the government and government funded bodies, by establishing a Public Archives and Records Authority, and creating the position of government archivist.

It also aims to set up an Archives and Records Council to monitor the performance of the Government Archivist, and advise on the functions and activities of the Public Archives and Records Authority.

The bill covers the handling of electronic records, and forbids government staff use of personal channels for public work.

Under the bill, non-compliance with proper management of public records would be a crime leading to fines and imprisonment. The public would have the legal right to access archival records; refusal would be subject to appeal and judicial review.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.