Benny Tai: Letter to Hong Kong Civil Servants

Original published in Apple Daily on 22 July 2014: Read original
Translation on 24 July 2014

Dear Hong Kong civil servants,

Although I have never worked in the government, over the last ten years or so I have provided legal training to quite a few government departments on areas including Basic Law, human rights law, judicial review, administrative law, law and governance, etc. I believe several thousand civil servants have attended my class, giving me the opportunity to share our views on governance. I also benefited from their frontline experience of how the law is enforced in reality.

What struck me most is that when asked to cite the biggest difficulty in your work, especially before and after 1997, most of you told me it is the citizens’ rising expectations of the government. Many civil servants are having the frustration that such rising expectations never seem to be satisfied.

This is understandable. Before 1997, most people in Hong Kong saw themselves living in a “borrowed place, borrowed time”. What they wanted is just a government which let them make as much money as possible in the shortest period of time. In particular, after Jun 4, 1989 many people were looking for a foreign passport as an insurance and therefore did not expect too much from the government.

After the handover, however, we finally see Hong Kong as our own place. With a much stronger sense of belonging, our expectations and requirements of the government are also higher. For example, a mother would be more than happy with 70 points in her son’s examination if she only expected him to pass. The same mother would be very disappointed with 80 points if she expected her son to get 90. To be fair, our civil servants have done better after 1997 but nevertheless still fall short of citizens’ expectations.

This is one of the reasons why civil servants find it difficult to adapt to the new environment, which I think is the reality they need to face. Citizens’ expectations get only higher with Hong Kong society becoming more open and diverse. My advice to civil servants is that they need to get prepared for this.

The lack of legitimacy of the government is the main reason why civil servants fail to meet citizens’ expectations and even have difficulties in governance.

Before 1997, the governance by civil servants was the key source of legitimacy of the Hong Kong government. After 1997, the change of political culture and the introduction of the Principal Officials Accountability System have made it difficult for civil servants to play the same role. Due to the lack of legitimacy, the government has become unable to implement policies that effectively resolve deep-rooted conflicts in the society, which further undermines its legitimacy. Such a vicious circle has put the government under the crisis of governance. Frontline civil servants who are directly facing the citizens are most affected by the continual lack of legitimacy.

Under the current political situation of Hong Kong, the most direct way to raise the legitimacy of the government is to introduce genuine universal suffrage, particularly on the election of the Chief Executive. By genuine universal suffrage, I am talking about elections that give the voters a real choice instead of choosing among the candidates pre-selected by the highest authorities as in the case of China. Chinese-style election methods can never resolve the governance crisis faced by the government as such proposals will not be passed in the Legislative Council. At the end, “small circle” election will continue to be used in 2017 and will put the government under a bigger crisis. Hong Kong may even become “ungovernable” and civil servants will be in a more difficult situation of getting the blame from all parties. Of course I am not saying the governance problem in Hong Kong will go away automatically with genuine universal suffrage but this is at least a good starting point.

Again under the current political situation, according to my study of “One Country, Two Systems”, Hong Kong democratic and constitutional developments for nearly 30 years, the Central Authorities will not easily give up the absolute power to control Hong Kong. Therefore, without enough pressure, the Central Authorities will only give Hong Kong people a Chinese-style universal suffrage. In order to achieve genuine universal suffrage, we can only resort to the unconventional means of civil disobedience, i.e. ten thousand people occupying Central. Even if “Occupy Central” fails to change the mind of the Central Authorities, it represents the only possible way out in the current political and governance impasse in Hong Kong.

“Occupy Central” may increase the workload and create immense political pressure to civil servants. However, I hope civil servants can understand that “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” aims to bring long-term benefits to them by improving the legitimacy of the government and the level of governance through genuine universal suffrage. This will reduce the frustration of civil servants in their work and increase their sense of satisfaction by completely resolving the governance problems that have been bothering Hong Kong for years. This is also in the long-term interest of Hong Kong.

Here I hope Hong Kong civil servants, when facing the potential “Occupy Central” in the future, can show more empathy and understand the desperation and grief of the participants in their action for the good of Hong Kong.

Benny Tai,
“Occupy Central with Love and Peace” Convener