Illusions of Civil Service Autonomy: The Sudden Departure of Paul Tang

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The replacement of one departing ExCo members tells of a subtle, but very important, shift in the power dynamic between the civil service and Executive-led Administration.

Photo: Paul Tang Kwok-wai (middle) on the job shortly before he departed last month. (Source: HK Gov)

Former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had a civil service problem in his first term. Particularly, he had a problem with his number-two, Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang.

The Chief Secretary privately opposed several of his favored policies. She was against Hong Kong’s bid to host the Asian Games. She had her own opinion on some of Tung’s housing plans. She also wanted Tung to fire an aide who had been implicated in the “Robert Chung Affair” – a scandal to pressure the Director of Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme to discontinue polling that demonstrated Tung’s unpopularity.

Chan’s efforts earned her a rebuke by Vice-Premier Qian Qichen and eventually led to her resignation in January 2001 for “personal reasons”. Yet she is often remembered for her belief in civil servant neutrality, which she characterized in her farewell speech as “speak truth unto power… based on the best information available and objective analysis even when you know it may not be music to [superiors’] ears.”

On Tang: “But the richest revelations pertained to the institution of the civil service.

Anson Chan’s departure from the Tung administration was probably not the first thing on the minds of political observers when current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced the replacement of two senior officials last month. Certainly, the media had more immediate questions: Was the replacement of Secretary for the Civil Service Paul Tang Kwok-wai and Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing voluntary or imposed? If it was imposed, where had the two men erred?

Ironically, the two officials’ stated reasons were just as “personal” and unsatisfying as Anson Chan’s, especially since Tang’s “unforeseeable family circumstances” and Tsang’s supposed “gladness to retire” were at odds with the whispers of an anonymous source, who cited job performance issues on the part of both men.

Tsang’s ongoing silence has yielded few new insights. On the other hand, Tang’s comments during a 2 August RTHK broadcast have provided ample food for thought, particularly for those who are concerned with the ongoing development of Hong Kong’s famed civil service. It is here where the shadow of Chan’s departure looms.

Whispers in the Dark

Most observers have focused on unconfirmed revelations of an inside source, who suggested Tang had mismanaged relationships with civil service unions, some of which were unhappy over a recent salary review process. Separate speculation centers around Tang’s failure to discipline civil service members who submitted an open letter in June that called on legislators to vote down the government’s political reform package.

On 2 August, without specifically saying so, Tang neither confirmed nor denied the rumours. Listeners learned that his departure was sooner than he had expected. And, while he stood by his earlier claim of family circumstances, he avoided saying whether his decision was free from official pressure. In fact, he specifically played down talk of family emergencies. Tang also noted that he felt there were few issues of cooperation with Leung. He said nothing of Leung’s own opinion.

“The real issue is the ongoing struggle for influence…

But the richest revelations pertained to the institution of the civil service. Tang claimed that political appointees should have more confidence in senior civil servants. And, regarding concerns over the salary review process, he noted that his role was to represent “capital holders” (the government) in the matter.

On concerns over the neutrality of the civil service, Tang made an important distinction, stating that political neutrality implies the ability to provide objective and comprehensive suggestions to officials on policy matters. As for public statements on policy, he said that, while, principal officers, administrative officers, information officers, and the police should refrain from publicly commenting on policy, this restriction does not necessarily apply to other civil servants. In other words, “neutrality” is not “silence”.

Echoes of the Past

One clearly hears echoes of Anson Chan “speaking truth unto power”. At least, Chan’s and Tang’s concept of “neutrality” differs from that of many of Leung’s supporters.

This is unsurprising, for in reality, Anson Chan was only the most visible manifestation of a bigger “civil service problem” for Tung Chee-hwa. Specifically, colonial Hong Kong was bureaucrat-dominated by design. Even the governor was a civil servant — albeit, one rotated in from abroad. Tung was an outsider at the pinnacle of an autonomous policy-making class over which he had little influence.

Prior to Ms. Chan’s departure, early planning for what became known as the Principal Officials Accountability System was already underway. Its introduction in 2002 established the existing layer of appointed secretaries above civil servants, a layer that Donald Tsang expanded in 2008.

“On concerns over the neutrality of the civil service, Tang made an important distinction, stating that political neutrality implies the ability to provide objective and comprehensive advice to officials on policy matters.

In light of this history, it is clear that the failure of civil servants to “toe the line” is not the major issue. The real issue is the ongoing struggle for influence over the civil service by political appointees, led by the Chief Executive.

In reality, Tang was in a difficult position. As a career civil servant, indoctrinated under the colonial system, he would naturally defend that institution’s autonomy. Yet, as his comments on the salary adjustment process reveal, he understands that, as an appointee, he himself was subject to his superiors’ censure for failing to guide the civil service as they might desire. He failed to harmonize these conflicting views.

Tang’s replacement was efficient, and most commentators are too distracted by granular details of the affair to notice the big picture. Just as Anson Chan’s departure marked the start of the loss of autonomy for Hong Kong’s civil service, Paul Tang’s departure may one day be seen as a milestone – one that showed that the administration’s authority over the  civil service had become well-established.