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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

HONG KONG

Caught in the Crossfire
Civil servants are victims of Sino-British sniping

By Tim Healy and Law Siu Lan / Hong Kong


"WE NEED SPACE," PLEADED Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's financial secretary, as reporters jostled him recently in their eagerness to ask questions. He could have been speaking for all his colleagues at the top of the local civil service. As the territory's transition quickens from British to Chinese rule on July 1 next year, they are increasingly caught in the crossfire between the mutually suspicious sovereign governments -- their current boss and their future one. Their dilemma throws into sharp focus some of the challenges facing Hong Kong as its historic transition approaches a climax.

The latest shootout began two weeks ago when Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On Sang criticized a decision by the Beijing-appointed Hong Kong Preparatory Committee (PC) to scrap the legislature elected last year under rules devised by Governor Chris Patten. The task of the 150-member PC is to coordinate the transition. Chinese officials responded by demanding that top local bureaucrats who wanted to serve beyond 1997 must explicitly back a different, Beijing-sanctioned provisional legislature that will start functioning July next year. Temperatures cooled a bit last week as Beijing softened its demand: senior civil servants need only remain politically neutral. In turn, Chan offered to meet Lu Ping, China's Hong Kong affairs chief, for talks during his imminent visit to the territory.

The effectiveness of the 180,000-strong local civil service has long been a talking point. Reason: the bureaucracy is the key government institution that will bond British-run Hong Kong with the post-1997 special administrative region (SAR) of China. The predicament of its leaders, the 27 top-level officers, is summed up by Lee Yee, a political commentator: "They are so cornered that there is little room for them to turn around. On one side is Patten, a hard-line critic of China's provisional legislature. On the other is Beijing, which has a crystal-clear aim: to stop them from speaking against the same body."

Perhaps no individual has been squeezed harder than Chan, Patten's top lieutenant. She has been tipped as a frontrunner for the job of civil service chief in the SAR. But her recent remark that "we see no justification for a provisional legislature" has led many observers to wonder if she remains in the running. Lau Siu Kai, a Hong Kong sociologist and PC member, believes Beijing probably appreciates Chan's difficulties. "She is bound to make comments like that, for she is serving the governor and his administration," says Lau. "I think China can understand that." Indeed, even as they criticize Patten, the Chinese have pointedly refrained from chastizing Chan.

With Hong Kong's handover now only 15 months away, basic questions about how its incoming power structure will mesh with its outgoing one have become urgent. Wong Hyo, chairman of the local Chinese Civil Servants' Association, thinks the transition won't be a problem so long as the neutrality of the bureaucrats is respected. Says he: "There has never been any doubt that we serve the Hong Kong British administration before July 1, 1997 -- and the SAR government thereafter." Yet later this year, the SAR's chief executive-designate will name the top post-1997 officials -- many of whom are expected to be members of the present administration. They will quickly become involved in the SAR government's preparatory work. To avoid a potential conflict of allegiance, China has suggested that they leave the Patten administration. Precise arrangements remain to be thrashed out between London and Beijing.

If such frictions leave Hong Kongers uneasy, that would only be natural. On March 31, more than 50,000 people queued up to beat a deadline on applications for British-issued travel documents. While many were indulging in old-fashioned procrastination, others plainly wanted the extra security and freedom of a passport recognized by about 80 countries. Holders of the SAR document, which becomes available only after the handover, have so far been promised visa-free entry only by Britain and Singapore.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the PC made a welcomed move two days later. Criticized for being unrepresentative, the body placed a full-page ad in local newspapers soliciting "opinions and proposals from people of all circles" on the transition. Patten seemed ready to do his bit too. Without revealing its contents, he pledged to "give proper consideration" to a Chinese list of specific requests for cooperation. Hong Kongers are hoping such gestures are harbingers of more positive developments when Lu Ping comes calling.


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