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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Freedom of Information

I saw a recent speech in which you spoke about the role of media and information in improving the management performance and in contributing directly to economic expansion. Could you talk a little about that?

Certainly. I'd be very happy to. We've seen a major transformation in our economy in the last few decades. Originally, our economy was very much based on the manufacturing industry. But over the years, given the scarcity of resources available in Hong Kong, particularly resources in terms of manpower and in terms of land availability, we have, like maturing economies elsewhere, moved from a manual economy to a more and more service-based economy. And today services and knowledge-based services account for 83% of our GDP and employ 73% of our total work force. And in that sort of a scenario, the free flow of information, and press freedom and all that goes with it, are crucially important to underpin our ability to compete in the worldwide market. And of course we all know that today the world is a highly competitive market and Hong Kong needs to compete, not only with our neighboring Asian countries, but also with countries around the world. So we want to make sure that after 1997 the press continues to enjoy all the freedoms as promised under the Joint Declaration, that there remains a free flow of information.

And do you think that this is an issue that can be negotiated successfully given the importance of information to the making of a success of the Hong Kong economy?

It's already negotiated because the Joint Declaration and the basic law, which will be the new constitution for the new special administrative regional government after 1997, does provide for protection of press freedom and all the other human freedoms that go with a pluralist society. Of course a paper promise is one thing. We need to make sure that we put in place the necessary building blocks that will ensure that that freedom can actually be practiced on the ground. And from that point of view we have a Bill of Rights ordinance, we have an independent judiciary, and we hope to have a credible legislature that will underpin the rule of law and protect our human freedoms, of which press freedom is a very important part. In addition to the government efforts, I think it also relies very much on the practitioners of the profession, that is the proprietors, the editors, and the reporters standing up for their own freedoms and defending those freedoms. So I would personally hope very much that after 1997 our reporters and our editors will continue to write the editorials and the stories that need to be written.

I think that with any bureaucracy, an accountable bureaucracy, we need the press and we need critics to keep us on our toes. Of course we all want to see a responsible press, a press that reports objectively. But at the same time we do wish the press to continue to report and continue to criticize because it is only in that way that the government can continue to improve and meet the aspirations of an increasingly affluent society.

During this period of transition it would seem that public education is a key, in the sense that all of the parties involved need to understand the importance of the elements that have made Hong Kong such an extraordinary achievement. Public information seems to be key because a service- and information-based economy is just not going to work if you don't have information.

That's very true. One of the challenges that we have to face after 1997 is to make sure that we continue to turn out the type of workers that the economy demands. And we've invested a great deal in the educational sector. Today we have seven universities. We provide for 80% of the relevant age group in tertiary institutions. And the number of university graduates has risen from about 180,000 in 1986 to over a half-million in 1995. We clearly appreciate that an educated work force is Hong Kong's best guarantee for continuing prosperity, and we will continue to invest heavily in the educational sector.

In the United States (and I'm not asking you to comment on the United States) the bureaucracy, the civil service, has often become a whipping-boy for the politicians as they struggle to shape a vision. Your system seems to have avoided that. Why is that do you think?

We don't avoid it totally, but I suppose compared with your country, yes we're relatively fortunate. But we're fortunate only in the sense that we've worked very hard to achieve the standing that we currently have. I think, by and large, the community, and I include in that our politicians, still regard the civil service as reasonably efficient. In recent years we've made it a particular point to be more open and transparent in our policy formulation, in the way that we implement programs. We've also improved our accountability to the community and to the legislature. For example, I think we must be one of the few territories anywhere on this earth that annually publishes a progress report giving an account of how we have performed in the past year, acknowledging our successes but equally acknowledging our failures. So where we have not met our target we give a clean account of why it is that we have not met these targets and give an undertaking that we will catch up. We also publish annually a statement of our commitments and our policy issues for the following year. So there is a system by which our legislature and the community can hold the government accountable. And I believe that also is a very crucially important part of good governance.

Next Page: Hong Kong after 1997

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