These are unusual times. Hong Kong scientists – they apparently exist – determine that time travel is impossible, and the world’s media report it as if it was something we didn’t already know. And many right-thinking people find themselves having a pang of sympathy and even a feeling of defensiveness towards some of the most overpaid wastes of space in the history of human civilization. Yes, we’re actually feeling sorry, at least a bit, for the Big Lychee’s civil servants.
The reason is egg tart-eater and director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Wang Guangya, who, in a meeting with visiting students on Tuesday, appeared to blame the bureaucrats for Hong Kong’s problems, accusing them of failing to formulate long-term strategies and deal with important problems. At least that is how a lot of people have interpreted the remarks.
It is an unjust thing to say because, although they are undeniably over-remunerated, devoid of imagination, arrogant and robotic, what we strictly speaking call ‘civil servants’ are purely implementers of policy. The spotty folk who wear sleeveless knitted jerseys and process applications, fill forms, tick boxes and count paperclips cannot be blamed for the Big Lychee’s lousy governance. Indeed, to the extent that Hong Kong is well-administered but badly governed, as someone once put it, the myopic followers of procedures at all costs could even deserve a very slight pat on the back, except that at the salaries they are on with full pension and job security, it’s actually the least we should be able to expect. Dame Anson ‘Conscience’ Chan, former top civil servant back in the days when the senior bureaucrats did have a hand in policymaking, flies off the handle near the end of the Standard story at the unfairness of Wang’s charge.
However, it is clear from his other reported remarks (“They are their own bosses but do not know how to behave as such”) that Wang is not speaking about civil servants at all, but the people at the very top who are politicians and who make policy. That he uses the phrase suggests he is for some reason omitting the small number of ministers not previously in the public service (like Chief Secretary Henry Tang and Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing). That means he is zeroing in on those that officially resigned from the civil service in order to take top-level positions. In other words, people like Financial Secretary John Tsang and Transport and Housing Secretary Eva Cheng. And of course, Chief Executive Donald Tsang.
These three are good examples of the reason Hong Kong seems to be slowly descending into an angrier, more disjointed and even volatile state. John Tsang is the genius who made a great show of asking for public suggestions ahead of the 2011-12 Budget, promptly threw all the ideas in the trash without looking at them and delivered even stupider spending plans than his previous efforts, with the result that he had to scuttle away promising to throw HK$6,000 at everyone to shut them up. Eva, as her job title suggests, could have spent some of the last four years sorting out tunnel tolls, preparing for road congestion charging and rationalizing bus services. And she could have spent the rest of the time planning measures like subsidized rental or for-sale apartments for the lower middle class in advance of the property bubble she was already being warned would come as a result of the government’s earlier decision to end regular land auctions after the previous crash. But she didn’t.
Of course, it may be that both these ex-civil servants wanted to push policies that were more creative and more in line with what people want and need, but their boss, Sir Bow-Tie overruled them. It’s unlikely, but if they had, we can be pretty sure he would have. He is the ultimate jumped-up former bureaucrat who can’t think up new policies and can’t abide anyone with the capacity to suggest any.
Wang’s criticism suddenly seems far more appropriate. These people, “civil servants” as he styles them, have screwed up and left him with a mess he shouldn’t have to sort out. As a relatively plain-speaking and candid Chinese official, he could have been speaking off-the-cuff to the young visitors, leading everyone to read too much into the comments, but of course this is not the first time. It was less than two months ago on a visit here that he said: “I believe the government must put greater effort into caring about ordinary people, especially the underprivileged, and their housing problems.”
What is Wang playing at? Watching Donald and Co getting a good public kicking from on high provides us with some badly needed entertainment, and humiliation of lowlier officials is part of China’s traditional management style. But it’s a bit late to expect a sudden improvement in governance; even if they weren’t clueless, our top officials would be hard-pressed to adopt radical new ideas when the administration has less than a year to go. Of course, the transition of power in mid-2012 is, or will be, planned, so it could be that some policy secretaries will remain in place and are expected to buck their ideas up, starting right now. Alternatively, Wang could be sending a clear message to Sir Bow-Tie’s successor, and to the whole of Hong Kong, that Beijing’s expectations of the city’s next leadership is going to be higher. (At long last: it is, let us not forget, the Central People’s Government that chooses and appoints these people.)
Or maybe he’s just as pissed off and exasperated with this rabble as the rest of us.