In its search for security, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reimagining our constitution in a way that enhances the Party’s role here. According to briefings following the just-concluded 19th Central Committee 4th plenum, the party plans to “establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security” in Hong Kong.

To do this, the CCP will strengthen and expand control over government leadership selection and monitoring, the school curriculum, and training of civil servants. These are core responsibilities of the CCP on the mainland.

Note that no representative of the Hong Kong government or Executive Council participated in these meetings about our future. Instead, the central government summoned our Chief Executive to Beijing to brief her on their content.

In this regard, Hong Kong and Macau are unlike any other local governments in China. We are completely unrepresented in the forums that matter.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

So far, the CCP has ruled Hong Kong through proxies, especially our titular leader, the Chief Executive.

This strategy was by design. Replace the colonial governor with a loyal Chief Executive, and Hong Kong’s well-oiled machinery that respects the bureaucratic hierarchy will adapt, shifting gears to become a special administrative region of China. This hasn’t happened.

In 2002, Tung Chee-wah introduced a system of political appointments to bring the civil service under his tighter control. This system now, however, is under the management of (retired) civil servants. Our still colonial civil service selects and promotes itself, unfettered by political considerations.

This system is anathema to the CCP, which at its core controls the country through the personnel appointment system. The party now proposes to introduce more party control here where previously there has been very little.

According to the briefings, the CCP will play a more direct role in the selection and monitoring of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Principal Officials. The party will implement patriotic education for our wayward youth and patriotic training for our civil servants.

The central government will make these changes using the power and authority laid down in the Basic Law. That is, rule by law. These tools will expand the carrots and sticks that the party now employs to manage the city.

Leadership selection

Since 1997, the CCP has selected four CEs for Hong Kong. Each has been found wanting. Tung Chee-wah and Leung Chung-ying left office prematurely as a result of mishandling our politics. Donald Tsang spent time in prison for misconduct in public office. And Carrie Lam’s incompetent management of the extradition bill got us where we are today.

Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

The CCP has expressed new interest in the performance of our leaders, beyond the CE, to include our Principal Officials. This includes the political appointees, of course, but also key disciplined services leadership (police, immigration, and customs and excise – they all are or may be armed).

The Party will examine their credentials, attitudes, and behaviour closely to ensure that they align with central government policy. The central government may require that candidates sign undertakings to implement specific policies.

If the Policy Secretaries fail in this, the central government could dismiss them. The Secretary of Education should implement patriotic education in our schools (compulsory courses in Chinese history and culture, now appropriated by the CCP).

The Secretary for the Civil Service should implement specific kinds of national training and disciplinary measures to help mould and control civil servants’ behaviour. The heads of the key disciplinary services should be better coordinated and aligned with mainland practice.

Also, consider the judiciary. The CCP views judges as civil servants, like other government employees. The CCP criticises judicial leniency for protesters, independence advocates, and flag desecrators.

Some party members criticise our foreign judges, although the Basic Law clearly allows them (e.g. in the Court of Final Appeal). We should expect the Party to examine the credentials, attitudes and sentencing behaviour of judges being considered for appointment in Hong Kong and block those it disapproves of.

This would bring Hong Kong practice closer to that of the mainland (where the judiciary is part of ‘political or legal work’ in CCP parlance). The Basic Law may not allow this, at least initially, but I suspect something like it is on the way.


A key part of the party’s new policy is to pay more attention to Hong Kong’s colonial-era system of education, currently mostly in the hands of churches. The CCP could require the government to implement compulsory patriotic education throughout the system.

Student-led protests against national education legislation at the Civic Square in 2012. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Some would welcome such a policy in Hong Kong. But many others would resist it, especially those who arrived here to escape revolution, war, and violent political struggle on the mainland.

These parents and grandparents of our youth have their own understanding of the mainland and the CCP. So, short of replacing them, adding compulsory courses in schools will not be enough. Changing values will require something more.

Will the CCP or Hong Kong government introduce more control of traditional media, the internet and social media? This is easy enough to do through economic incentives (purchases, mergers, and advertising budgets), and censorship, which we already allow.

Civil servants

The CCP perceives that indiscipline among our civil servants is part of the problem. New regulations and disciplinary measures would prevent civil servants from protesting against government policies. Failure to comply could result in severe penalties (e.g. fast track dismissal).

In our dystopian future, led by an illiberal authoritarian regime, artificial intelligence could be used to identify civil servants who fail to comply, surveilling all their public and private communication, including social media.

Combined with a social credit system “with Hong Kong characteristics,” such a policy could effectively snuff out dissent.

National Education Protests in 2012. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The party may also require better coordination among government departments, especially the armed disciplined services on whom the government now depends.

This could involve them using the same internal communications systems, perhaps aligned with the People’s Armed Police and common training so that they act as a cohesive force for putting down dissent. They could train with the PAP in Shenzhen.

The party will play an active role in these changes, and at the same time identify activists and new party recruits here.

A problem is the CCP’s one dimensional understanding of Hong Kong, which focuses single-mindedly on security and party survival. The party relies too much on the united front and on transient party bureaucrats for intelligence.

I am sure that the party sees the causes of our discontent as multifaceted. The CCP has spoken out repeatedly about our land and housing issues. But the measures discussed above focus almost exclusively on security, especially for the CCP here and on the mainland.

Focusing only on bureaucratic accountability will rob the Hong Kong government of legitimacy, and further undermine the Basic Law’s requirement that the Hong Kong government also be accountable to the people of Hong Kong.

This constitutional requirement seems to be ignored in the party’s design. Indeed, is the Hong Kong government now in breach of the Basic Law?

John Burns

John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU's Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.