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Hong Kong Leader Seeks to Revamp Civil Service

April 18, 2002|From Associated Press

HONG KONG — Hong Kong's leader announced plans Wednesday to form a Cabinet of political appointees to run the 180,000-member civil service left behind by the British, the biggest government shake-up since the former colony returned to Chinese rule.

Pro-democracy lawmakers accused Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa of seeking more power by setting up a government of yes men and said he was pushing through the changes too quickly for adequate discussion.

Handpicked by Beijing in 1997, Tung has been highly unpopular among Hong Kong citizens. He will begin his second term in July.

Tung dismissed the criticism.

"If you think all the people who join the government will listen to my voice only, you're underestimating them," he told lawmakers. "If I can only employ such people, then it's my failure. I won't employ people in this way."

In a publicly broadcast speech before the legislature, Tung said he was proposing 14 senior-level posts for political appointees who will report directly to him.

The civil service needs radical reforms to cope with major challenges, he said. Hong Kong is struggling to bounce back from its second economic downturn since Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997.

The measure seems certain to pass. The opposition can object but do little else under Hong Kong's legislative arrangement, which critics say is unfairly tilted toward big business and pro-Beijing interests.

The revamping will leave the appointees running the territory's civil service, currently a nonpolitical force that is a legacy of British colonial days.

Tung said the final power over any appointment and removal of officials rests with Beijing, which has allowed Hong Kong a great deal of political autonomy under an arrangement dubbed "one country, two systems."

Pro-democracy legislators grilled Tung on how the government would be more accountable to the people when its top officials answered only to him.

"Is it fitting to call this an accountability system when it has no democratic basis and isn't accountable to the public?" asked Martin Lee, head of the political opposition.

Many lawmakers also complained that they weren't being given enough time to study the proposal.

"They didn't give us any concrete details," said legislator Margaret Ng, who walked out of a private briefing given before Tung publicly announced his plans. "It was meaningless."

Another opposition figure, Emily Lau, said it was "totally unacceptable" that Tung wanted his new plan approved in time for the start of his second term July 1.

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