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Hong Kong’s Civil Servants Under Siege

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Hong Kong’s Civil Servants Under Siege

A civil servant explains the growing pressures facing Hong Kong’s bureaucrats.

Hong Kong’s Civil Servants Under Siege
Credit: Flickr/ Whampoa Sports Club

Kristine Chan (a pseudonym) is a Hong Kong civil servant in her early 30s. Last year, thousands of her colleagues took part in massive anti-government protests, and at least 46 have been suspended after being arrested or prosecuted in relation to the demonstrations. Since then, authorities have taken measures to clamp down on dissent within the civil service, as part of a wider campaign against opposing voices that has escalated following the passing of a national security law by Beijing in June. The law criminalizes those found guilty of crimes such as secession and subversion, which are vaguely defined.

In a move that has raised concerns over freedom of speech from civil servant unions, Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip declared last month that all staffers must pledge loyalty to the city and its mini-constitution, and that those refusing to do so could jeopardize their chances of promotion. Chief Executive Carrie Lam also stated that civil servants “must dedicate themselves to their duties and be responsible to the HKSAR government” in her fourth policy address. Earlier this year, the government made it mandatory for new recruits to sign a declaration pledging allegiance.

As civil servants grapple with these growing pressures, Chan shares her thoughts on these recent changes, and the future of the civil service. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Since the social movement last year, we’ve been facing increasing pressure. The management tries to control our freedom of speech. They keep reminding us, by sending us different letters and emails, that we need to be neutral. They expect us to be supportive to the government no matter what our true stance is. It’s like we’re not serving the people anymore, just serving the central government in China. It’s getting a little bit crazy.

I think the oath taking is a big deal. If you don’t sign it, they will immediately assume you will be against the government one day. Most of us don’t agree with this practice. Those who are almost retired and are older think it’s quite normal. They stress that Hong Kong is a part of China, and civil servants have the responsibility to uphold the policies issued by the government and support it no matter what we think. But most of the newer recruits, what we care about is that freedom of speech is protected. The Basic Law guarantees our freedom of speech. No matter what career we have, we should enjoy this right.

I used to think being a civil servant was just a job. But it’s not like that anymore. We’ve been put in the mindset that we need to support the government no matter what, and act like a robot. At work, we try to avoid discussing stuff because you never know what others might think of your stance. In some cases, (when) colleagues showed they don’t agree with some of the actions the government has taken, those who support the government will report to the management. When the management knows some people have “extreme” political views, they try to observe what they say on Facebook, and see whether they have said anything inappropriate. We’re under such great stress.

I heard from some of my friends who are trying to get into the civil service that in interviews, they try to hide their true views. They try to act like they are supportive to the government and politically neutral. This isn’t a good atmosphere. Even in our private lives with friends, it seems like last year’s movement has changed our relationships a lot. Different people have shown they have different views. They finally realized that politics are part of their daily lives. Once you realize they hold different views from you, these relationships we have developed for years become so fragile.

There have been some new civil service unions established this year. We feel quite amazed about this. Not every one of us are brave enough to do this, even if we want to. This new union stands up and tries to regain the lost territory. They try to tell protesters and people who are involved in the movement last year that actually, some of us are still with them and stand with them.

On those who have been arrested, I feel their situation is quite heartbreaking because they’re (being punished for) exercising their social rights. Their identity is not just limited to being a civil servant – they’re also a citizen in this city. They’re just trying to get involved and express their views. The saddest thing is that different departments are having secret talks. They try to observe people, try to define them by different colors according to their political views. If they disagree with you, they will try to hinder your process in your career development.

I did think about changing jobs or moving to another country. I’m an officer, with the chance to be promoted to the management level. We are hoping one day that if we’re promoted, we can try to do something to change the culture. In the long term, it feels like they are selecting people who can slowly obey, to be obedient to everything the government says. We think it’s healthier if everyone can have their own views on issues, and strike (a balance) for the best.

Advocating for the independence of Hong Kong is hardly possible. I think most of us don’t advocate for independence, but we hope that the Chinese government will respect “One Country, Two Systems.” At the end of the day, I agree we need to be neutral in our jobs. But I think after working, when I return to my personal life, I hope I can still be a normal citizen. I hope I can form my own views, not be affected by others, and still discuss political issues.