An outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
in Hong Kong in early 2003 killed almost 300 people in
a few short weeks and left hundreds more with long term
medical problems. It also had a severe – but luckily short
term – impact on the local economy. A Government campaign
to help the community cope with the economic consequences,
and then revive the economy, was broadly successful and
by the end of the year Hong Kong was steaming ahead in
its usual full throttle way.
But one item within that Economic Relaunch programme became
a political hot potato. The controversy led to disciplinary
action being taken against the head of a small government
department though no minister was held politically accountable.
In 2007, the civil servant concerned, having been found
guilty by an internal disciplinary panel and having suffered
a small penalty, took legal action to clear his name.
He sought a Judicial Review in the High Court of three
decisions against him, one each by the Chief Executive,
the Chief Secretary for Administration and the Secretary
for the Civil Service. Moreover the grounds he cited to
justify the review were by implication critical of actions
and decisions by the Secretary for Justice and the Financial
Secretary of the time. In effect therefore he was taking
on all five of the most senior political leaders, a royal
flush of the Administration so to speak.
Yet not only did the civil servant win the court case
(heard in 2008), he kept his job and retired a few months
later with honour. And the Judge who ruled in his favour
got promoted to the Court of Appeal.
These events would have been remarkable enough in any
society at any time. It is difficult to think of another
community in Asia or even the world where they would be
possible. Yet they took place in Hong Kong 11 years after
China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over the one-time
British Colony. A tribute both to the Central People’s
Government’s respect for Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy”
as promised in the city’s constitutional document known
as the Basic Law, and to the resilience of the institutions
left behind by the British and nurtured meanwhile by Hong
Kong citizens. The Common Law system remained firmly in
place and all remain equal before the law.
Much has been written about the events which formed the
backdrop to the Judicial Review and the disciplinary proceedings
which preceded it. But a great deal of the material was
inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Hence my decision
to write this book. For I was that civil servant, and
it is time for the true story – the complete story – of
HarbourFest to be told.
I have not written the book with the intention of absolving
myself of any blame for the problems that arose, nor to
point the finger at others. Rather, I have sought to set
out what I did and didn’t do, and why.
More importantly, the case illustrates a significant structural
problem that has arisen since the introduction of the
system of Ministerial Accountability in 2002. Unless that
issue is addressed, there will be more such instances
in future hence casting a shadow over the quality of governance
in Hong Kong.
Before we begin the story, we should note that while Hong
Kong is a major city of some 7 million people, in many
ways it seems more like a village. The circle of people
holding senior positions in the Government, in political
circles, in the professions, in the private sector or
even in major social and sporting organisations, is fairly
small and there are many overlaps. It would be all too
easy to suspect or imply collusion or conspiracy when
there is nothing of the sort, only a perfectly innocent