In about a month, Hong Kong commemorates the 25th anniversary of its return to China. To preserve a veneer of social harmony, the Hong Kong government has stayed away from controversial policies. Nonetheless, the civil service pay rise issue has caused a stir.
Last week, the Hong Kong government’s Pay Trend Survey Committee (PTSC) proposed pay increments of 7.26%, 4.55% and 2.04% for civil servants in the upper, middle and lower salary bands. Many Hong Kongers reacted strongly to the news.
Many Hong Kongers feel that given their performance, civil servants do not deserve a pay rise.
Even the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce — which has never spoken up — released a rare statement questioning the PTSC’s findings. It worried that an excessive increment would have a negative ripple effect, especially on small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Hong Kong is facing an outflow of talent, with a manpower shortage in many sectors. Companies will face heavy pressure in retaining workers, and it will be difficult to match the government’s pay level.
Undeserved and bad timing?
It is easy to understand why people have a lot to say about the civil service pay rise. Over the two years of the pandemic, the Hong Kong government has not performed up to standard. Civil servants were the first to work from home, and no matter how bad the employment situation got out there, their pay was not affected. Many Hong Kongers feel that given their performance, civil servants do not deserve a pay rise.
Putting aside the debate over civil servants’ capabilities in handling the pandemic, 2018 saw the start of the China-US trade war; in 2019, there were the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong; and in 2020, the pandemic hit. The chain of crises has seriously hampered Hong Kong’s development over the past three years.
Early this year, the fifth wave of the pandemic hit Hong Kong’s economy hard, with unemployment jumping to 5.4%, and the market forecasting just 1% GDP growth for this entire year. It is not surprising that there have been brickbats thrown at the government for being removed from the ground in proposing a civil service pay rise amid the bleak outlook for Hong Kong’s economy.
Of course, from the perspective of civil servants, it is not unreasonable to ask for an increment. First, Hong Kong’s pay trend survey has always looked at fluctuations in goods prices and private sector salaries before proposing annual adjustments to civil service salaries. It has long become a reliable gauge upon which civil servant salaries are adjusted. If the survey showed that civil servants should get a pay rise and the authorities did not follow, that would seem unfair to civil servants.
Second, Hong Kong has always been a market economy, and both the public and private sectors are thirsty for talent. The Hong Kong government has always provided high pay to keep officials clean and uncorrupted, attracting talents with good benefits. If civil servants get a pay increment this year, it will help them to be more settled in their positions and work with peace of mind.
Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants are an important part of its governance framework, and they are directly linked to the smooth running and stability of the Hong Kong government. If civil servants can get a pay increment, that would definitely boost their morale.
Putting money where the mouth is
The third point is especially important. In the early days of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, by virtue of their “clean, efficient and professional” image, Hong Kong’s civil servants were seen as the backbone of the Hong Kong government responsible for implementing “one country, two systems”.
To demonstrate “one country, two systems”, “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” and “a high degree of autonomy”, Beijing has always sought to paint the civil service as a united front and hoped to instil a sense of gratitude in them and entrust heavy responsibilities to them.
Following this, Beijing paid even more attention to cultivating a united front of Hong Kong’s civil servants.
In 2003, the Hong Kong government was forced to cut civil servants’ pay under the pressures of a huge fiscal deficit. While this move eased the financial burden on the Hong Kong government, it offended the city’s civil servants, who participated in the 500,000-strong 1 July protest in 2003, which ultimately shelved Article 23 of the Basic Law and indirectly led to the stepping down of Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, in 2005. Following this, Beijing paid even more attention to cultivating a united front of Hong Kong’s civil servants.
I remember that back when I was covering civil service news at a Hong Kong media platform, Beijing conducted many courses within a short period of time to comprehensively explain China’s outlook to Hong Kong’s civil servants.
Whenever senior civil servants of Hong Kong visited Beijing, they would be warmly welcomed by the authorities and sometimes be received by senior mainland Chinese officials. It followed that when the Hong Kong government deliberated annually on civil servants’ pay increment and the amount, they would consider civil servant sentiment.
... tens of thousands of civil servants still participated in high-profile rallies against Beijing during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protest, so much so that they were later described as the largest anti-China “political party” in Hong Kong.
A political lobby that is not that easily swayed
Unfortunately, it seems that Hong Kong’s civil servants are not reciprocating Beijing’s goodwill. While Hong Kong’s Civil Service Code stipulates that civil servants “shall not engage in party political activities” in their official capacity, tens of thousands of civil servants still participated in high-profile rallies against Beijing during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protest, so much so that they were later described as the largest anti-China “political party” in Hong Kong.
Thus, for the past two years, civil servants have occasionally been chastised by the pro-establishment camp for their lack of loyalty. After Beijing implemented the Hong Kong national security law in 2020, it said that Hong Kong should only be governed by “patriots” who love China and Hong Kong. This naturally meant that Hong Kong’s civil service would be a major target of revamp and consolidation, and that the bureaucrats would be pulled off their high horse and raked over the coals instead.
Thus observably, this time round, some senior officials of the Hong Kong government and various political parties of the pro-establishment camp deemed the proposed pay rise for civil servants unreasonable. While they seem to be targeting the mechanism for determining civil service pay adjustments, they are really using it as a smokescreen to vent their dissatisfaction with the civil servants. This indeed shows that Hong Kong’s civil servants have fallen from their pedestal.
Going by the above, it seems that this year, it will be impossible for civil servants to receive a pay rise that matches the recommendations of the pay trend survey report.
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