Political neutrality does not mean supporting neither side, Hong Kong minister says

Lilian Cheng
·4-min read

All civil servants must pick a side and support Hong Kong’s leader, the top official in charge of the government workforce has made clear, and those holding foreign passports can continue to serve without fear or favour as long as they toe the official line.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Post on Tuesday, Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen spelled it out that public servants would have to set aside their personal beliefs or political inclinations, and the tradition of political neutrality did not mean “supporting neither side”.

He was expanding on Beijing’s bottom line that only “patriots” would be allowed to run Hong Kong from now on following the political turmoil and anti-government protests of 2019 during which civil servants became caught up in activism and street demonstrations.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

The government workforce was first required to sign a new oath of office last October to uphold the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

In early March, the pro-establishment camp, including Hong Kong deputy to China’s top legislature Maggie Chan Man-ki, further suggested to the central government that senior civil servants and heads of key statutory bodies should be banned from holding the right of abode overseas.

About 200 Hong Kong civil servants face dismissal for refusing to pledge allegiance

Addressing the matter clearly for the first time, Nip said: “There are people who hold foreign nationality or foreign passports, but so long as they are permanent residents [of Hong Kong], they are eligible for serving in the government as civil servants.

“The Basic Law provides for those who hold foreign nationality to remain and serve in the government. Everything will just work in accordance with the Basic Law and the laws of Hong Kong.”

Nip could not specify how many permanent Hong Kong residents in the civil service held foreign passports.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s top officials and politicians, such as the chief executive, chief justice, principal officials, government advisers in the Executive Council, the Legislative Council’s president and all lawmakers in geographical constituencies have to be permanent residents with no right of abode in any foreign country.

But foreign passport holders are allowed in the civil service, including the disciplined services such as the police force.

Concerning the new declaration which all 180,000 government employees had to sign, Nip said it was aimed at making sure that only “patriots” would be involved in administering the city, as public servants were very much part of the political structure, alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

“I can say that in other countries or places, this issue would not be contentious, and would be readily accepted by people,” he said.

“For everyone playing a role in a political structure, it’s already very trivial and everyone would understand there must be some requirements, and patriots administering Hong Kong is the basic requirement.”

The head of the Civil Service Bureau noted that some people deemed political neutrality – listed as a core value in the Civil Service Code – as meaning “supporting neither side”, but he disagreed.

“We are in a political city … we have to deal with a lot of issues that are political. What political neutrality actually means is that, for civil servants, they have to support the chief executive and the government of the day in doing this job, irrespective of what their personal belief would be or the political inclinations would be,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean that on these issues you do not take sides, [like saying] I do not support the government nor do I support the opposition. No, that’s not the case.

“You are in the civil service, you are part of the political structure of [Hong Kong]. You have a role to implement the ‘one country, two systems’ principles in accordance with the Basic Law and the laws of Hong Kong.”

Civil servants will not be held criminally liable just for refusing to pledge allegiance: minister

Nip said fewer than 200 employees who had refused to make the new pledge would face dismissal, and the process would take a few months.

From the enactment of the national security law and the oath-taking requirement for civil servants to the ongoing overhaul of the electoral system, Nip said, the goal was to make sure that only patriots would administer the city.

“They are all initiatives and important steps that put things on the right track for Hong Kong to implement the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” he said.

“One country is the basis. If we get this one country principle and concept right, then you have a bigger room to develop the two systems, to really let Hong Kong’s advantage shine.”

More from South China Morning Post:

This article Political neutrality does not mean supporting neither side, Hong Kong minister says first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.