With strong support from Beijing, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) won an uncontested second term as chief executive of Hong Kong. Due to the poor performance of officials and complaints from the public, Tung has proposed an accountability system for officials which in effect amounts to a ministerial system. Beginning on July 1 the territory's efficient civil service will be replaced, creating a major change in the way Hong Kong is administered.
The territory's civil service has been known for its efficiency and honesty, and has been called one of the world's best civil services.
Even China approves of it. Article 103 of the "Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China," stipulates that: "Hong Kong's previous system of recruitment, employment, assessment, discipline training and management for [sic] the public service, including special bodies for their appointment, pay and conditions of service, shall be maintained, except for any provisions for privileged treatment of foreign nationals."
After the transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997, all department secretaries and officials, apart from those in the Department of Justice (British citizens), were retained.
Only five years later, however, the Chinese promise of 50 years without any changes to the way Hong Kong is administered is being tossed out. In order to implement a new accountability system, Tung forced the former chief secretary for administration, Anson Chan (陳方安生), to resign a year ago. She was succeeded by Financial Secretary Donald Tsang (曾蔭權), whose replacement in the finance post was Antony Leung (梁錦松).
Of the three department secretaries, both Elsie Leung (梁愛詩), the secretary of justice, and Antony Leung, are patriots who have been brought into the system by Tung from outside the ranks of the civil service. The only holdover from the British era is Chief Secretary Donald Tsang. Together with Tung and the Executive Council -- which Tung appoints -- these three department secretaries have become the decision makers in Hong Kong. Among them are a few covert members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
This year, however, Hong Kong's economy has not improved and it is not very convincing when Tung tries to blame this on his officials.
Tung's official report to the Legislative Council (Legco) on April 17 finalized the structure of the new accountability system. It will consist of three department secretaries and 11 bureau secretaries. The three departments will remain the same as today, while the 11 bureaus will be created by merging some of the current ones.
The 14 secretaries will not have the administrative neutrality they enjoyed in the past when they worked in accordance with a complete legal system. Rather, Tung will make political appointments and the appointees will, in turn, be accountable to Tung. If any mistakes are committed, the person judged responsible for the error may be dismissed at any time. Whether any mistakes are actually committed will of course be decided by Tung.
This constitutes a change from the rule of law to rule by man. Since not all of these secretaries will be officials appointed from among the bureaucrats remaining from the old system -- and therefore protected by that system, Tung will be able to create his own clique. The department and bureau secretaries will create a "cabinet" together with members from the Executive Council. Bureau secretaries who are not appointed will be demoted to standing secretary-generals responsible for implementing policies handed down from above.
The reaction in Hong Kong to this new system is complicated. Since Tung has previously criticized public officials for, among other things, their high salaries and laziness, some in Hong Kong consider it a positive reform because they hear the word "accountability." Newspapers, including so-called "intellectual" newspapers, also approve of the move towards accountability.
Democracy advocates and scholars, however, believe that this will bring Tung one step further in the expansion of his dictatorial powers. CCP loyalists are of course supportive.
The question is: To whom are these officials accountable? In ministerial systems in democratic countries, public officials are accountable to popularly elected leaders and legislators. Tung, however, is not popularly elected, and neither are most of the Legco members. Accountability to Tung is therefore accountability to him personally and not to the citizens of Hong Kong.
If Beijing or Tung really are set on reform, they should first imple-ment democratic reforms to institute elections of both Legco members and the chief executive on the basis of one person, one vote. A true ministerial system in which officials are accountable to the chief executive will only exist when that chief executive is democratically elected.
Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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