Eternal Hong Kong

I have been a part of Hong Kong’s civil service for more than three decades. Throughout my entire career I have worked with many people whose driving impulse has been to serve Hong Kong. That remains as true today as it did almost 40 years ago, when I first entered government.

The past couple of weeks have been among the most momentous periods since our reunification with China in 1997, and it has left me in the hot seat as Hong Kong’s Acting Chief Executive. It is not easy to describe the enormous level of responsibility I feel.

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What sets Hong Kong apart is our ability to sustain social stability and economic growth. One key element of our success is the institutions that buttress our development. These include our legal system, which is underpinned by an independent judiciary, our legislature, and our civil service. Each operates independently but is an integral part of the whole. In short, ours is a system of government like many others.

However, Hong Kong has some distinguishing features, including a very internationally minded and outward-looking government, owing to our close integration into world markets long before globalization became a catchphrase. Within the ranks of our civil service and judiciary are nationals from Britain, Australia, the United States, Canada, and India.

Moreover, our Court of Final Appeal calls on some of the most esteemed minds of the common-law world. We have a large foreign population and one of the world’s largest consular corps. International chambers of commerce play a very active and vital role in government consultations. Our Basic Law even allows for foreign nationals to be elected to one-fifth of the seats in our legislature.

Hong Kong’s cosmopolitanism long ago planted the seeds of tolerance and respect in our approach to government. As a result, we are committed to dialogue and compromise as the only way to balance the many competing demands and opinions that pervade public affairs. Good government is not a competition. It’s not about winning or losing, or whose view or will prevails. It is about making the best decisions for the community as a whole.

Inevitably, this will often involve compromise. Indeed, as Hong Kong’s society has grown more sophisticated, it has also become more complex, multi-faceted, and pluralistic. This means that government can no longer afford to view issues in isolation; its operations need to be de-compartmentalized and flattened, as well as streamlined. This is a difficult task, given that some of our systems have been in place for many years, often entrenched in law.

Of course, pragmatism has its limits, because good government is also about upholding core values. I have often referred to what I call the four pillars of Hong Kong’s success: the rule of law, a level playing field for business, a clean and efficient civil service, and the free flow of information. These are values that we simply will not compromise. To do so would mark the beginning of the end for Hong Kong.

Since reunification with our motherland, we have the added safeguard of the Basic Law, which gives effect to the principles of “one country, two systems” and “Hong Kong’s people running Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy.”

Good government also requires sharing a vision of the future – the purposes and thinking behind public policies – with the community. Our vision is to develop Hong Kong as Asia’s world city. This is an all-encompassing brief, covering everything we do as a community and an economy in areas ranging from international trade to art, culture, and tourism.

The Basic Law embodies this vision, laying the foundations for our development over a 50-year period and providing the freedom and the power for us to position ourselves as Asia’s world city – and to do it on our own. At the same time, it also embodies the depth of the central government’s support for Hong Kong. It is thus crucial to the good governance of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region.

In many areas – financial services, infrastructure, communications technology, and tourism – I would say we have reached our goals for Hong Kong. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t read something in the local press that refers to our status as Asia’s world city. Even when people feel we have not lived up to the standards expected of a world city, we are glad to be held to a high benchmark, because it keeps us on our toes.

That may sound disingenuous to some, but Hong Kong’s officials share a common mission to maintain the stability and prosperity of our city. Our duty is to make Hong Kong a better place for us all, without hidden agendas or quid pro quos. It is an onerous and solemn undertaking, uplifting one day and extremely frustrating the next. But, above all, it is an honor and a privilege to play such a role in our society, and I know that the vast majority of officials, legislators, judges, and civil servants with whom I’ve worked would agree.