More than 180,000 civil servants in Hong Kong are being forced to choose between their jobs and being able to speak and act freely outside the office, as the city’s government insists they take an oath of allegiance that includes a pledge not to “undermine the government.”
A directive sent to the entire civil service on Jan. 15 also states that any civil servant who advocates for or supports independence of Hong Kong, who seeks foreign intervention in Hong Kong affairs, or who expresses views contrary to the government’s position in their capacity as civil servants will be considered in breach of that oath.
Civil servants who refuse to sign the written declaration may be dismissed from their posts, the directive said.
A 3,000-strong independent civil servants’ union set up during the 2019 protest movement immediately announced its dissolution.
The Union for New Civil Servants announced it would disband in a Facebook post over the weekend, following an email on Friday from the Civil Service Bureau calling on all civil servants to pledge their allegiance to China and to the Hong Kong government by mid-February.
Former chairman Michael Ngan described the oath-taking requirement as an “arrow on the string” for the union, adding: “I have no choice but to dissolve this trade union in order safeguard everybody.”
The email sent to all civil servants last Friday warned that “any act that seeks to undermine the government in its governance of Hong Kong” could be deemed a breach of the oath.
On Jan. 5, more than 50 pro-democracy politicians and activists were arrested under a draconian national security law after they held a democratic primary to select the best candidates to ensure enough seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo) to block government legislation.
The aim of the primary was deemed subversive under the new law, which was imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party from July 1, 2020. The majority of arrestees have yet to be charged, however.
US imposes sanctions
The U.S. State Department imposed sanctions on officials it deemed responsible for the arrests, including You Quan, vice chairman of Beijing’s Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, and Sun Qingye, deputy director of Hong Kong’s national security office.
Three officers of the National Security Division of the Hong Kong police were named: Frederic Choi, Kelvin Kong, and Andrew Kan, along with Tam Yiu-Chung, a Hong Kong delegate to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee, who was also designated.
All were associated with “developing, adopting, or implementing the national security law,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
China retaliated on Jan. 18 with sanctions on U.S. officials, members of Congress, personnel at non-governmental organizations, and their family members.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters on Tuesday that it was “only natural” that civil servants should pledge allegiance to the government, and warned that repercussions would follow for anyone breaching it.
“If somebody who has taken an oath to swear allegiance and pledge loyalty has subsequently done something which is in breach of the oath, then appropriate actions will have to be taken by the authorities,” she told reporters.
“Nothing extra is being asked of them in signing this declaration,” Lam said. “It is a matter of course … that they support the [Hong Kong] government.”
Passport-holders under threat
Meanwhile, there are concerns that civil servants eligible for British National Overseas (BNO) passports, holders of which have been offered a path to U.K. citizenship, may be forced to give them up.
China’s NPC standing committee is expected to discuss the issue at a meeting from Jan. 20-22, after Beijing promised “countermeasures” in protest at the U.K.’s offer, which came after the imposition of the national security law.
Among the measures being considered are banning BNO passport holders from holding public office and even depriving them of the right to vote in elections.
Emily Lau, chairwoman of the Democratic Party’s international affairs committee, said any ban on civil servants holding the BNO passport could trigger mass resignations.
“I don’t believe they will do this; I don’t want that to happen,” Lau told RFA. “Things would get very bad if they stopped BNO passport-holders from being civil servants.”
“I think there is a large number of civil servants who have BNOs, so would that mean they have to resign?”
The Civil Service Bureau declined to respond to questions from RFA about the number of civil servants holding BNO passports, and whether current permanent secretaries, heads of departments, and senior directorate civil servants hold BNO passports.
“According to Article 99 of the Basic Law, except for the exceptions specified in Article 101 of the Basic Law, public servants serving in all departments of the Hong Kong SAR Government must be permanent residents of the HKSAR,” it said in a written reply to questions.
“There is no requirement under the Basic Law regarding the nationality of civil servants or the passports they hold.”
However, NPC standing committee decisions have overridden provisions in the Basic Law in the past, on issues that Beijing is keen to see resolved to its satisfaction.
The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau declined to respond to similar questions sent on Tuesday.
The Hong Kong Police Force declined to comment when asked how many of its senior officers and national security bureau officers hold BNO passports, saying it wouldn’t disclose personal information relating to its officers.
Many supported the protests
Ma Ngok, associate professor of the Department of Politics and Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the government is clearly worried by the number of civil servants who actively and visibly supported the 2019 anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement.
“Back in 2019, civil servants gathered in support of the protest movement, including the New Civil Service Union,” Ma said.
“The central government will also have concerns about whether civil servants will strike, or engage in other forms of collective resistance,” he said. “This could paralyze the government, so they want to prevent that from happening.”
Ma said the requirement that civil servants stay on message, without specifying the types of activity that could lead to disciplinary action, is bound to create a chilling effect.
“Regardless of whether a civil servant is speaking in an individual or [official] capacity, they will no longer be able to express public opposition to the government,” Ma said. “There will be a chilling effect for many people, and the fear of being reported.”
“The whole environment for civil servants will change because of this,” he said.
Reported by Chung Yut Yiu and Gigi Lee for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.