Critics have raised concerns over the Central Policy Unit’s influence on the government in appointing personnel to its advisory and statutory bodies, with critics accusing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying of using the institution to strengthen his network of allies.

The Central Policy Unit has made 622 appointment recommendations since Leung took office five years ago, Apple Daily reported. There is also an upward trend in the number of recommendations made, with a gradual increase from 109 instances in 2013 to 157 last year.

central policy unit
Photo: GovHK screenshot.

The unit is a government think tank established in 1989 to advise the chief executive, chief secretary and finance chief on policy matters. It is not explicitly tasked with giving appointment suggestions.

Leung’s close aide

Generally, members of the public can apply to the Home Affairs Bureau for advisory positions, though critics complain of lack of transparency in the selection process. Groups such as think tank Zubin Foundation have also nominated talent to the government. Decisions are made by the relevant bureaux and departments.

However, the Central Policy Unit appears to have more influence over the matter than other entities. In April, the unit’s deputy head Olivia Nip Sai-lan admitted during a legislative session that the current administration “seemingly believed [the unit] should do more on personnel appointments.

“I believe this decision was made at the top-level,” Nip added, without naming Leung Chun-ying.

She also admitted that Sophia Kao Ching-chi, the unit’s full-time adviser and a close aide to Leung, was in charge of making recommendations on appointments to advisory bodies. Kao is paid around HK$3 million a year for her position at the unit.

Leung Chun-ying Sophia Kao
Leung Chun-ying and Sophia Kao (R) during the 2012 election campaign. File

When asked how many of Kao’s suggestions were adopted or rejected over the years, Nip said the unit does not keep records as the final decisions are made by government departments.

Kao attracted media attention Sunday after she commended Leung in a new book This Chief Executive Is Not That Cold, which compiles praise for Leung from public figures. In the book, she expresses hope that Leung would be more “wolf-like,” on the basis that she has never seen him throw a tantrum despite facing tremendous stress, Ming Pao reported.

‘Crony network’

Democratic Party lawmaker James To accused Leung of using the mechanism to strengthen his “network of cronies.” He told Apple Daily that he was “most revolted” by the appointment of Maria Tam, Hong Kong deputy to China’s National People’s Congress, as chair of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC)’s Operations Review Committee.

“The committee decides whether the ICAC should drop a case or take action,” he said. “But [Tam] is extremely pro-Beijing and very supportive of Leung… It is very dangerous that she has a say in the ICAC’s operations and is able to access confidential information.”

Leung has also recently come under fire for re-appointing pro-Beijing lawmaker Holden Chow to the Equal Opportunities Commission, despite Chow’s open opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Other controversial appointments made by the Leung administration include the membership of pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho and Executive Council member Arthur Li on the governing councils of Lingnan University and the University of Hong Kong respectively.

maria tam wai chu holden chow junius ho
(L to R) Maria Tam, Holden Chow, Junius Ho. File Photo: Gov HK/Citizen News/Junius Ho Facebook.

See also: Quest for diversity: Ethnic minority Hongkongers seek inclusion in gov’t advisory bodies

Former Civic Party lawmaker Chan Ka-lok said that, even though the final appointment decisions were made by governmental departments, he believed substantial weight was attached to the Central Policy Unit’s suggestions.

He warned that placing Leung’s allies in advisory bodies would “have a corrosive effect on Hong Kong’s core values and the ability of these bodies to monitor the government.”

Incoming leader Carrie Lam has also likened the unit to a “black box,” in that she had no idea what it was working on. She said during her election campaign that she would not let the unit participate in appointing personnel to advisory bodies.

She said she would instead reform the unit to broaden its functions in public participation and hire 20 to 30 young people to conduct policy research.

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