Hong Kong hit by mass exodus of civil servants

Resignations highlight fears for colony's bureaucracy, reports Stephen Vines
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Hong Kong - The director of immigration has quit with barely enough time to pack his bags, the head of the government's propaganda department is off, alongside a clutch of her senior staff, the only ethnic Indian policy secretary has been squeezed out, and a number of other very senior civil servants are refusing to say whether they will stay or go.

Yet the disappearances at the top of Hong Kong's civil service are minor compared with the likely carnage among holders of sensitive government jobs. Around one-third of the most senior officers in the police force are likely to quit before next year's Chinese takeover and the numbers likely to leave the Special Branch are a tightly kept secret.

Asked about the evident unease at the highest levels of the administration, Governor Chris Patten said: "I don't believe that we have any real problems of personnel shortfall or management in the civil service or the disciplined services." He said that the numbers of people leaving were very low, although he admitted that at directorate level they were "a little higher".

However, there is no disguising worries over dilution of the civil service's quality. A belated localisation programme, alongside a mass of early retirements, has meant over-promotion of mediocre officers. The consequences are likely to be particularly severe in the police force where the commissioner has taken the unusual step of asking his officers to indicate whether or not they intend to leave, in the hope that those thinking of going can be persuaded to stay.

Fearing a mass exodus of civil servants, China has done its best to assure the 180,000-strong staff that its services are valued and no radical changes are envisaged. But unease surrounds the plans for the appointment of policy secretaries, a hybrid position which in British terms combines the role of ministers and permanent secretaries.

It is clear that those wishing to hold on to top jobs are being vetted to ensure they will be loyal to the new regime. An acid test of that loyalty seems to be endorsement of China's plans for scrapping the legislature and replacing it by a provisional, unelected body.

Some senior members of the civil service have publicly hinted that they do not agree with the administration's policy of non-cooperation with the new law-making assembly, others are believed to have done so in private. Some are more circumspect. A local newspaper conducted a survey of policy secretaries to see who wished to remain in office after the Chinese takeover: about a quarter of those surveyed declined to give a positive answer.

As China is almost certain to be running the colony with leaders who either have very little or no experience of how the Hong Kong government works, it is keen to keep the bureaucracy intact. Lo Tak-shing, the only declared candidate for the position of chief executive, or head, of the post-1997 government, has gone so far as to suggest pay rises for all civil servants to keep them sweet.

However, money and fear of the new regime's intentions are not the only concerns. Civil servants face a host of personal problems, particularly those who have sent children overseas to be educated and settle in anticipation of the regime but do not wish to split the family permanently. A great many fear that China will not honour pension commitments made by the current administration. They thus favour early retirement and lump- sum payments of their pensions to get their money out of the system. They also fear that their ability in the Mandarin dialect, the language of the new masters, is not up to scratch.

Taken together these concerns create enormous pressure at senior levels. One senior officer explained her dilemma: "I don't trust the Chinese and I don't want to work for them but what else can I do? I've been in the service all my life, who else would want me now?" She plans to take early retirement and emigrate but remains unsure whether she will have enough money in the long-run.

Even the senior civil servants likely to remain after 1997 appear to have secured an escape hatch, mainly through the British nationality scheme which provides the right of abode in the United Kingdom for those wishing to remain in Hong Kong while they occupy key posts. Technically, members of this scheme are not full British citizens and will therefore not be disqualified under Chinese rules from holding policy secretary positions. But this will not prevent a quick visit to the massive new British consulate which is being geared up to issue passports at short notice.