Civil servants’ oath-taking a shot in own feet

Permanent secretaries take an oath of allegiance at a ceremony presided by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.Permanent secretaries take an oath of allegiance at a ceremony presided by Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

By Chris Yeung —

To sign or not to sign. This is the question facing Hong Kong’s 180,000-strong civil servants who are given four weeks to sign a declaration of allegiance to the Basic Law and the Hong Kong SAR.

If they refuse, they could be given the boot. But if they do so, they could become the targets of political persecution by the authorities making use of their declaration.

In new guidelines issued Friday last week, the government has given a non-nonsense warning that anyone aiming to destabilise the administration or stir up anti-government sentiment that might trigger social unrest would be in violation of their oaths.

On Saturday, the Union for New Civil Servants, a civil servants’ group formed during the 2019 anti-government protests, became the first to disband. Its chairman, Michael Ngan Mo-chau, confirmed the move was in response to the new oath-taking requirement.

If the new requirement is already in place, any civil servants who are office-bearers of the union, which had held rallies in support of the 2019 protests, could be in hot water, or lose their jobs.

The disbandment of the short-lived union is indicative of the harsh reality of the weakness of unions in the city with the authorities imposing new curbs on freedom of expression, with civil servants as the first target.

Barring unexpected developments, an overwhelming majority of the 180,000-strong civil servants are expected to sign their declaration when the deadline ends next week.

This is simply because few should under-estimate the ruthlessness of the authorities in their attempt to clamp down political dissent within the civil service. It looks almost certain that those who refuse to sign would face the danger of being sacked or demoted. 

This is despite the lingering doubts within the civil service about what constitutes a breach of the oath and what if civil servants refuse to sign.

Unions said the Government has refused to hold more consultation and briefings to answer their queries about the new requirement.

That the Government is keen to rectify the civil service stems from Beijing’s fears about the overall state of Hong Kong. Like the authorities on the mainland, the central government and the pro-Beijing camp reckon the vital importance of the fleet of civil servants in upholding security and thus stability in the city.

Civil servants are the backbone of the executive authorities and society at large. Signs of civil servants siding with the protesters during the 2019 social movement had shocked the mainland authorities. They reckon that more drastic actions are urgently needed to “rectify the wrong.” 

An oath of declaration by civil servants has emerged as a powerful and effective tool of control over the deeds and words of civil servants.

For it to function as an effective deterrent tool, it has to be broad in scope and vague in its definition and enforcement, thus giving enormous room for the authorities to contemplate penalising civil servants on grounds of a breach of the law.

That is exactly what the Secretary for Civil Service, Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, was trying to do when he commented on the oath in the past days.

Nip has given hints that those who had committed misconduct during the social movement could face investigation and prosecution if there is enough evidence. He went further to argue that those who gave interviews to “anti-China” media outlets could be in trouble.

Nip did not elaborate who the “anti-China” media he was referring to. His refusal of giving names could give rise to second-guessing by civil servants, resulting in self-censorship and self-silencing.

In an explanatory note of the declaration, the Civil Service Bureau has warned civil servants to be careful not to give public perception that he or she is representing the Government when commenting on local issues.

But even if they have spoken in their personal capacity, they could be easily dragged into muddy waters if their civil service identity was made open on social media deliberately.

Nip has repeatedly stressed that the declaration will not erode freedom of expression. Nothing is further from the truth. It will no doubt cause jitters among civil servants with more and more preferring to seal their mouth to avoid breaching the oath.

A fleet of civil servants obsessed with fears about a breach of their oath in their work and life could hardly provide a source of stability in the society.

This article was first published on Apple Daily website on Jan. 20.






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