Anson Chan Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Shaping Hong Kong's Future:  Conversation with Anson Chan, Chief Secretary of Hong Kong; 1/27/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

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The Role of the Civil Service in a Market Economy

Let's talk about the civil service in a market economy. In your present position you head a 190,000-person civil service which is recognized as one of the best in the world. How has this civil service contributed to the success of the Hong Kong economy?

The Hong Kong civil service has a very enviable but well-justified reputation as being one of the keenest and one of the most efficient. This hasn't come about by chance. It's come about because the civil service has managed to remain, through all 150 years of Hong Kong's history, as a meritocracy, free from political influence. And in that culture we've managed to help Hong Kong prosper and grow. And it is, in my view, crucial to maintain that culture, that political neutrality and meritocracy after 1997. The civil service plays a very key role in Hong Kong's economy. We have, over the years, worked out a system of financial management that provides for a small, non-obtrusive government. All sectors of the economy are well regulated but not over regulated. We have managed to keep corruption at bay for the last 25 years, certainly in the public service and also in the private sector. And we want to ensure that that will remain so. In addition, the civil service has a good reputation for maintaining a level playing field. Our rules for participation in government contracts and franchises are very free and open. Everybody knows these rules and they know the basis upon which they can participate. So these are the ingredients that contribute to Hong Kong's prosperity and continuing success. And these are the ingredients that we need to keep if Hong Kong is going to continue to grow and to benefit, not only for the people of Hong Kong, but also to assist China in its modernization program.

What are the particular challenges for a manager in your role to maintain the system that you've just described?

As head of the civil service, I see myself as responsible for a number of key functions. First of all, clearly to provide for effective leadership -- setting a good example for the rest of the civil service. I think it's also crucially important for me, as head of the civil service, to allow all members of the civil service to realize their full potential, to help them maximize their strengths and to minimize their weaknesses, and to train our people so that they can move into positions of responsibility.

Is morale a particular problem during this phase of Hong Kong's existence?

No, in fact morale is remarkably good given the uncertainties that have been posed by the whole transition process, particularly uncertainties with regard to the future of individual offices. But on that front I'm glad to say that the Chief Executive Designate, Mr. Tung, has made it quite clear that he hopes to see maximum continuity in the civil service. And I think that has given my colleagues within the civil service a greater degree of confidence in their future.

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