Hong Kong loses 10,000 civil servants amid political crackdown

Government talent programs have yet to bear fruit, as brain drain from once-prestigious jobs persists.
By Alice Yam for RFA Cantonese
2024.04.15
Hong Kong loses 10,000 civil servants amid political crackdown A child with members of the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department poses for a photo at the Hong Kong Correctional Services Academy Open Day during the National Security Education Day in Hong Kong, April 15, 2023.
Louise Delmotte/AP

Hong Kong's civil service has hemorrhaged more than 10,000 employees in recent years, in the wake of a city-wide crackdown on public dissent that has forced them to censor what they say on social media and take an oath of loyalty to Beijing.

More than 10,000 civil servants resigned in the year 2022-2023, according to figures from the city's Civil Service Bureau, compared with just over 8,500 people in the year 2018-2019, from jobs that were once known for being generously rewarded in terms of pay, additional benefits and long-term stability.

The news of the brain drain emerged as several government departments marked "National Security Education Day" with lavish flag-raising ceremonies complete with goose-stepping uniformed officers and a marching band.

The figures emerge amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent under two national security laws that ban public criticism of the government, as well as official insistence on political loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party for anyone in public office in the wake of the 2019 pro-democracy movement, which many civil servants supported.

For Hong Kong's 48,000 civil servants, that means not just swearing loyalty to the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, but also refraining from public criticism of the government, even on social media.

In 2021, the government terminated the contracts of 129 civil servants who refused to sign a written oath of allegiance. Some used the form to complain that the requirement infringed their right to free speech.

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Students attend a moot court to mark the National Security Education Day at the former North Kowloon Magistrates' Courts in Hong Kong, China April 15, 2024. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

In December 2023, a whistleblower accused the government of trying to "brainwash" civil servants with a secret training video based on Beijing's claim that the 2019 protests were an attempt by foreign countries to undermine the Hong Kong government.

Nearly 1,000 of those who resigned were under 30, while nearly 3,000 had less than 10 years of service, according to figures provided in a written reply from the Civil Service Bureau to the Legislative Council on April 11.

However, the reply didn't mention emigration as a key factor behind the high vacancy rates.

Difficulty recruiting

The government also alluded to difficulties in recruiting staff in an April 9 press release saying it wouldn't proceed with its review of civil service pay and conditions, "in view of the severe and unprecedented turbulence in the current labor market."

"The effect of the talent and labor-trawling measures introduced by the government in recent years on restoring the stability of the labor market is yet to be observed," the statement said, alluding to a slew of measures aimed at attracting regional talent to Hong Kong in recent years.

"I really wanted to leave Hong Kong and emigrate," a former Hong Kong civil servant who gave only the surname Chan for fear of reprisals told RFA Cantonese. "Kids need a free environment in which to develop."

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Civil servants attend a rally to support the anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong, China August 2, 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Chan, who has now moved to live overseas, said many of her colleagues have also resigned in the wake of the crackdown on the 2019 protest movement, citing a "deteriorating social environment."

She said Hong Kong's civil service was once considered a stable career for life.

"Usually turnover shouldn't be very high [for civil service positions]," Chan said. "A lot of people I knew actually had good jobs, but they all chose to leave."

"Most of them left regardless of whether they had kids or not," she said. "Most of those who quit were emigrating, and gave no explanation -- it wasn't simply a matter of getting a new job."

Police hit hard

Vacancy rates are running at around 19% in the city's police force, which has struggled to boost its numbers despite a huge injection of funding in the wake of a much-criticized crackdown on the 2019 protest movement.

Meanwhile, some 24% of vacancies at government broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, which was placed under direct editorial supervision by a government committee in February 2021, remain unfilled.

International press advocacy groups have criticized the authorities for eviscerating press freedom in the city, sparking an exodus of journalists.

Another issue is that younger Hong Kongers, many of whom spearheaded recent waves of pro-democracy movements and who have wound up in large numbers in prisons and the court system, are highly unlikely to want to work for the government in the current political climate, where they are accused of being "rioters," or the tools of "hostile foreign forces" seeking to destabilize the city.

"They can't recruit people, because very few young people are choosing to join the government," Leung Chau-ting, who chairs the Federation of Civil Service Union, which he helped found in 1984, told RFA Cantonese.

"There's a huge shortage of experienced middle managers, and a lot of non-government employers are headhunting talent from government departments," Leung said.

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Anti-government office workers attend a lunchtime protest in Hong Kong, China, November 27, 2019. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

National Security Education Day also brought a warning from Xia Baolong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party official in charge of the city, that "hostile foreign forces" would continue to attack, and likening the democracy movement to a "virus."

"Even with the protection of the national security laws, activities that endanger national security will continue to attack us like viruses, so we can't just let our wounds heal and forget about the pain," Xia said in a video address for the event.

Meanwhile, Beijing's envoy to Hong Kong, Zheng Yanxiong, blamed former British colonial governor Chris Patten for "laying political landmines in Hong Kong" with his electoral reforms widening the voting franchise ahead of the handover.

China reversed Patten's changes soon after the 1997 handover, and has since further rewritten the electoral rules to allow only staunch supporters of Beijing to stand in "elections" to the legislature and for district council seats.

Incumbent Chief Executive John Lee took office in 2022 after winning an "election" in which he was the only candidate.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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