On Wednesday, Hong Kong media reported a major cabinet reshuffle. The government retired ministers of home affairs, the civil service, innovation and technology, and financial services and the treasury.

The chief executive explained that these changes had nothing to do with holding the HKSAR government to account for its incompetence and misconduct that led to last year’s protests. We see those chiefly responsible for the fiasco continue in power.

Photo: Screenshot.

Of those leaving the cabinet, Joshua Law Chi-kong and James H Lau were from the administrative officer grade. Most eye-catching of all was the replacement of the minister for constitutional and mainland affairs, a post held by a (retired) administrative officer, with the head of the Immigration Department, Erick Tsang Kwok-wai.

Tsang, a 33-year veteran in the area of immigration, a disciplined service, is described as having “close ties with the mainland authorities and a good knowledge of Chinese policies…”.

Tsang appeared in a picture shared on social media in April in an office, presumably his, with a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping prominently displayed. This appointment demonstrates the decisive action of Hong Kong’s new Liaison Office chief, Luo Huining, widely perceived to be our Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary, to bring the civilian side of the Hong Kong government back under tighter central control. The ministry of state security already directs the Hong Kong police.

Luo Huining. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Central authorities sent Luo to Hong Kong to reassert central control and implement the central committee’s new policy direction for Hong Kong, revealed on November 1, 2019. The policy followed months of protests in the city, that local authorities appeared unable to stop. One aspect of the policy deals with Hong Kong’s civil service, which administrative officers continue to lead.

The CCP has criticised Hong Kong’s colonial civil service, and especially the administrative officer grade. The party observes the grade as an institution that has a poor understanding of the developments in mainland China and Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong. For example, Patrick Nip Tak-kuen confused the status of the HKMAO and the Liaison Office. This confusion was apparently shared by others inside and outside the HKSAR government.

The CCP also observes that the administrative service is the keeper of the government’s insistence that the civil service is “politically neutral.” The party notes that this is, or was, a British colonial notion, implying that it has outlived its usefulness. What does politically neutral mean in a one-party system?

If the core meaning of political neutrality is impartiality, then the Hong Kong civil service’s claim to be politically neutral is a sham. The colonial government laid down the policy as the authorities permitted the emergence of “political parties” in Hong Kong. Our “political parties” are nothing of the sort because they do not and may not aspire to be in power. This was especially true during the colonial era.

Patrick Nip. File photo: inmediahk.net.

Since 1997, Hong Kong became part of a one-party system. Civil servants are required to enthusiastically implement government-party policy. Yet the CCP observes that civil servants in Hong Kong have violated their duty of loyalty to the government, based on a colonial-era understanding of political neutrality, with relative impunity.

Forty thousand mostly civil servants demonstrated against the government’s position on the extradition bill on August 2, 2019. Presumably, authorities removed the minister for the civil service for this and other transgressions. We will see whether Nip, the replacement, is up to the job.

Political neutrality as impartiality should continue to have currency, even in a one-party system. The state should be impartial vis-à-vis business and society. Yet authorities in Hong Kong, led by our administrative officers have failed in this too.

For most of the colonial period, administrative officers made policies that were anything but “impartial.” Consider the special privileges the government bestowed on British taipans and transferred to our tycoons at the expense of the rest of us. The privileges include no inheritance, gift or capital gains taxes, and our flat-rate income tax.

As Alice Poon pointed out in Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong, the government has empowered a small number of families (she identifies six), enabling them to monopolise whole swaths of our economy, including property, utilities, bus services, and food retail.

Our Legislative Council functional constituencies give big business privileged power and deny the people equal representation. These aspects of the colonial project are codified in the Basic Law. This is not political neutrality, even in a one-party system.

We are living with the consequences of this every day, as stuck as it seems, and unable to move forward. Hopefully, the CCP is worried about this, too.

Legislative Council. File photo: LegCo.

Our chief executive herself comes from the administrative officer grade. Her performance has only strengthened the CCP’s view that the grade in power has outlived its usefulness. Parachuting Mr Luo in to clean house is only just beginning.

Our authorities must restore impartiality and dilute the power of big business, giving voice and hope to the people of Hong Kong. To do otherwise is to risk years of instability and alienation and rob all of us of a future of contributing to the development of the city and the rest of China.

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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.