Hong Kong to overhaul civil service code, says leader John Lee

By on 25/10/2022 | Updated on 25/10/2022
Officials stand next to the Chinese and Hong Kong flags in Hong Kong.
Civil servants in Hong Kong have been required to pledge allegiance to the Special Administrative Region since 2020. Photo by Ant & Carrie Coleman via Flickr

Officials who perform poorly will face a streamlined dismissal process as part of plans to rework the city’s civil service code, Hong Kong chief executive John Lee has said.

In his first policy speech since becoming Hong Kong’s leader in May this year, Lee said the code – which was launched in 2009 and outlines the standards the government’s 180,000-strong workforce must adhere to and the values they are expected to uphold – would be “revised and updated”. The new code would emphasise “strong awareness of safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests”, he said.

Reforms aimed at “strengthen[ing] the reward and punishment system” of the civil service would ensure that public servants who excel get public recognition and that those whose performance “remains persistently sub-standard” are fired in a “timely manner”, he said. “The public will suffer if an incompetent person stays in his or her position for a long time.”

Lee took aim at current disciplinary procedures, which he said were too complex and inefficient. His address coincides with plans to review the civil service’s disciplinary processes, the findings of which are expected to be published next year.

Read more: Pro-Beijing security chief to be Hong Kong’s next leader

Raymond Young Lap-moon, Hong Kong’s former home affairs bureau permanent secretary, echoed Lee’s view. He said that officials who fall below acceptable standards may have their pay docked or face dismissal, but that these outcomes are currently subject to multiple reviews and hearings.

“The new mechanism can hopefully spot civil servants who are underperforming in a more timely manner and improve the efficiency of the team,” he said.

The government had been criticised for failing to tackle the city’s fifth spike in COVID-19 cases earlier this year, prompting some pro-establishment figures to demand stricter disciplinary measures.

Testing times

The Hong Kong civil service has seen a number of changes to recruitment practices and HR policies since the introduction of the controversial national security law in 2020, which makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy.

The security law was passed in response to 2019 pro-democracy protests against an extradition bill that would have allowed authorities to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. In a rare act of public defiance, civil servants joined protests against the bill and China’s growing influence on Hong Kong, leading to questions over neutrality.

These tensions led to incremental changes both to the way the city is governed and to the internal workings of the civil service.

Read more: Hong Kong civil servants join protests against extradition bill

Earlier this year, changes to recruitment practices were introduced requiring people applying for civil service jobs to take a test on the city’s mini-constitution and the national security law.

In addition, since July 2020, all civil servants have been required to pledge adherence to Basic Law as enshrined in the mini-constitution, as well as pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Lee’s predecessor Carrie Lam said it was imperative that civil servants have an understanding of the constitution and basic law to “reinforce a sense of national identity, and deepen their capability for broad and strategic thinking”.

The government revealed earlier this year that a total of 129 civil servants and 535 other government workers had been sacked or resigned after failing to take the oath of allegiance.

Read more: Hong Kong civil service applicants to be quizzed on national security law

The Hong Kong civil service has seen a staff exodus in recent months. Around 3,734 civil servants resigned from their jobs in 2021-22 – around a third of the total number of departures over that period – according to figures released by the Civil Service Bureau in July. This is more than double the total number of resignations the previous year and the highest level since the handover of the city from the UK to China in 1997.

The bureau said the resignations “[had] not impacted government work much”, adding that what remained important was that “government is able to hire and retain suitable talent to serve the public”.

Prior to becoming chief executive, Lee – who is pro-Beijing – had been Hong Kong’s security chief. He had previously worked in the police force and led a police crackdown on the 2019 demonstrations.

Read more: Hong Kong officials to be required to swear pledge of allegiance

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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