Next to protest against Hong Kong's government - its employees

Finance sector professionals gather in Chater Garden on Aug 1. Civil servants plan to demonstrate at a downtown park on Aug 2, with several groups of them recently calling on the government to address protesters' concerns.
Finance sector professionals gather in Chater Garden on Aug 1. Civil servants plan to demonstrate at a downtown park on Aug 2, with several groups of them recently calling on the government to address protesters' concerns.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - This summer, Hong Kong has seen protests against the government by students, teachers, parents, lawyers, doctors, nurses, social workers, senior citizens and finance workers.

On Friday (Aug 2), members of one prominent group that has not yet collectively taken to the streets are expected to join them: professionals within the government itself.

The action by members of the civil service - scheduled to be a two-hour gathering after work in a downtown park - is likely to be one of the more placid protests in this former British colony.

But it could also be a powerful one, showing that public discontent with Hong Kong's leaders is shared by at least some of the people who serve under them.

It comes as the government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is facing pressure from Beijing to restore order, in the light of increasingly frequent clashes between demonstrators and police.

This week, the People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong released a promotional video pledging to defend Chinese sovereignty in the semi-autonomous territory, with footage of troops rounding up mock protesters in a drill.

The planned demonstration by city employees has raised questions about whether such an action would violate the civil service's restrictions against public engagement in politics and how it might affect the service's reputation as one of the region's most effective bureaucracies.

In a message sent on Thursday to all civil servants, the official who oversees them, Mr Joshua Law, said he absolutely did not approve of such a demonstration.

"This is unprecedented," said Emeritus Professor John P. Burns at the University of Hong Kong, who has studied the civil service. "The very fact they are physically coming together in one place is one thing. But I think they've already done what they need to do, and that's issue a statement."

 
 

In recent days, several groups of civil servants appear to have called on the government - anonymously - to address protesters' concerns. In petitions and open letters on social media, hundreds have indicated their endorsement by sharing photos of their civil service staff cards, with their names covered.

Last week, more than 100 of the city's roughly 700 administrative officers, an elite level of policymaker, apparently endorsed a letter calling for an independent investigation into issues surrounding the protests - including the mob attack on protesters and bystanders at a train station in Yuen Long on July 21 and the reasons for the police's failure to stop it.

Among other issues, the letter also called for an investigation into the process by which Mrs Lam's government introduced a now-suspended Bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, the issue that set off the demonstrations.

"If we do not face the root of the problem, we are not only disregarding our mission to serve the public, it would also be impossible to steer Hong Kong back onto the right track," the letter read.

Another letter endorsed by self-identified civil servants, numbering more than 200, threatened "concrete industrial actions" if the government "continues to ignore public opinion".

Staff members from the Hong Kong Department of Justice's prosecutions division appeared to endorse a letter criticising the department's leadership and calling for an investigation of the Yuen Long mob attack.

And a letter attributed to firefighters and paramedics condemned the slow police response to the mob attack. No officers intervened as the mob of men dressed in white shirts and carrying sticks, beat people indiscriminately; no arrests were initially made, and some of those since detained are suspected of ties to criminal gangs known as triads, which have a history of being hired to carry out political violence.

 
 

The Law Society, a lawyers' organisation that usually takes pro-establishment positions, on Thursday joined the calls for an independent inquiry into the growing political crisis.

One Hong Kong civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation at work, said she and many of her colleagues were angered that police, while taking swift action against anti-government protesters, had done nothing to stop a mob from beating some of those same demonstrators. She said the public was losing its trust in the government, which was affecting their work.

Mr Michael Ngan, a Labour Department officer who filed the application to hold the Friday protest, told public broadcaster RTHK that he considered it a display of responsiveness to public concerns.

"We are not organising a resistance nor are we standing in opposition to the government," he said. "We want to send a message to the public that civil servants can hear your voices and are willing to share them with the government, thereby repairing the relationship between the government and the people."

Mr Ngan and other organisers of the Friday protest declined requests for interviews. Some said they had been deluged with harassing phone calls.

Mr Law, the head of the civil service, said in his internal memo on Thursday that "civil servants must remain politically neutral", though he did not explicitly threaten to punish employees who would participate in the demonstration on Friday. He said "outside parties" could "have misconceptions that the civil service is in opposition with the government".

The government issued a statement later on Thursday saying that "acts to undermine the principle of political neutrality of the civil service are totally unacceptable".

Some civil servants have said that they plan to participate in a general strike that protest organisers are encouraging people across the city to join next Monday.

Mr Ngan told RTHK that the tone of the gathering on Friday would be rational. He said he intended to invite Mrs Lam or another senior official to address their concerns.

 
 

Mrs Lam is a career civil servant, as are almost all of her chief ministers. She can be stern in interviews and public appearances, but she often speaks warmly of the bureaucracy, and the protest and public letters have served as stark notice that such sentiments are not always reciprocated.

According to their code of conduct, Hong Kong's civil servants, of whom there are about 180,000, are required to be loyal to the city's leaders and keep private any personal views that contradict the government's decisions.

"Once a decision has been taken by the administration, civil servants should support and implement the decision fully and faithfully irrespective of their personal preferences and should not make known their own views in public," the then-head of the civil service told the legislature in 2004. A memo updated in 2015 said that civil servants were not prohibited from joining political organisations or activities that do not conflict with their official duties.

Scholars and civil servants could think of no similar protest in recent decades. But in the 1970s, after Hong Kong began an aggressive campaign against police corruption, some officers protested, saying they were being too harshly targeted.

In 1977, after a series of demonstrations, dozens of officers stormed the headquarters of an anti-graft body, the Independent Commission Against Corruption. As a result, Mr Murray MacLehose, then Hong Kong's colonial governor, issued a partial amnesty for past police corruption.

What punishments, if any, that civil servants who participate in the protest on Friday would face could be a matter for their immediate superiors. But Prof Burns said the reputation of the civil service, in general, was likely to be unscathed.

"We have a group of civil servants saying we think this is what's called for," he said. "I think the community will be happy for that."