Hong Kong city’s number 2 Matthew Cheng Kin-chung has said civil servants can join an anti-extradition bill rally in their free time and in a personal capacity, while some civil servants have said they will join the call for a citywide strike on Monday despite a warning from the government.
Police earlier approved an application by a civil servant to hold a rally between 7pm and 9pm on Friday at Chater Garden in Central.
Ahead of a rally organized for civil servants in Central on Friday evening, the chief secretary said civil servants should not do anything to oppose the administration in the name of the civil service – as this could give a wrong impression to the public that there are differences between the government and its staff.
Cheung spoke after a “solemn statement” from the government the night before.
A government spokesperson cited the Civil Service Code, saying civil servants “shall uphold the principle of political neutrality” which means they shall serve the chief executive and the government with “total loyalty and to the best of their ability, no matter what their own political beliefs are.”
It warned that the government would seriously follow up on any violations of regulations by civil servants.
The spokesman criticized anonymous letters, saying it was difficult to verify the identity of people behind them, apparently pointing to a large number of civil servants from various department and ranks issued open letters to the public to urge the government to manage the ongoing extradition bill crisis.
He warned that any action that makes the public mistakenly think that civil servants are against the government would be unacceptable.
Joshua Law Chi-kwong, the secretary for civil services, also sent a letter saying civil servants must maintain political neutrality though he said he understood that some colleagues might have their own thoughts on recent events.
There are about 174,000 civil servants in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, more civil servants said they would still join the rally despite the “solemn statement”. They cited the conduct and principle at the Civil Service Bureau’s website, saying “there is no objection to individual civil servants participating in political and electioneering activities if this does not give rise to any conflict of interest with their official duties”.
An open letter on behalf of “off-duty civil servants from 52 government departments” responded, citing Basic Law Article 27 as civil servants, like any other Hong Kong residents, “shall have freedom of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.”
They slammed the government statement as suppression and urged the government to respect and strictly obey the Basic Law and stop any speech threatening civil servants.
Another open letter on behalf of “a group of civil servants” addressed to the civil services chief criticized the government for refusing to listen to the public. It said that as civil servants, they should respond to the public’s demand, and thus, will break their silence and join the rally on Friday.
They also said if Law chooses to stand by the government, they have no method but to escalate their action. They may march to the government headquarters in Admiralty after the rally or will consider joining the citywide strike on Monday.
Members of Radio Television Hong Kong’s program staff union voted to join the rally on Friday night, as well as a strike called for Monday. As a public broadcasting service provider, many of the RTHK staff are civil servants.
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, former secretary for the civil service, said the government’s statement only reiterated the “political neutrality” principle but did not state what behavior would violate the regulation, adding that he couldn’t find any points on the statement that participation in the rally on Friday was a violation of the principle of political neutrality, Apple Daily reported.
Wong added that “total loyalty” meant loyalty to the political system, not to any individual. The point should not be elaborated as “not oppose your boss”.
Wong cited the chief secretary as an example, saying Matthew Cheung’s apology last week about the late response by police on attacks on protesters in Yuen Long was later criticized by some police unions. The union even called for Cheung to step down.
“Will this kind of statement be classed as not loyal to the government, and a breach of political neutrality?” Wong asked.
Meanwhile, pro-establishment groups staged a demonstration outside the government headquarters on Friday morning, demanding that civil servants who join the protest that evening should be sacked.
They called on the civil service chief to fire one of the organizers of civil servants’ rally – Labour Department official Michael Ngan, adding that he had a track record of causing trouble, including supporting class boycotts and anti-national education protests when he was a student.