Opinion Politics & Protest

Approval to resign? Finance Sec. John Tsang is answerable to Hongkongers, not Beijing

I have complained about this before. I fear I shall probably find myself complaining about it again in future. But it is an interesting question: where did the idea come from that if a Hong Kong official resigns, his resignation does not take effect until it has been “approved” in Beijing? I suppose we owe this gratuitous grovel to the early years of the Tung administration, but there is no justification for it at all. Officials of the Hong Kong Government are employed by us.

The Hong Kong Government in some form is the name on the contract, their conditions of service are fixed by the Hong Kong government and their wages are paid from our taxes. They are in all respects Hong Kong employees, subject to Hong Kong labour law and contracts interpreted under Hong Kong legal principles.

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A demonstrator displays a placard depicting Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in February. File photo: AFP/Philippe Lopez.

There is one oddity about a few of the most senior officials, and that is that their appointment must be approved by Beijing. Whatever you think of this arrangement, its terms are quite clear. There is nothing in the Basic Law, or anywhere else, to suggest that Beijing’s approval is needed for other features of their employment. Beijing does not approve their salaries, their housing benefits, their personal toilets or their international junkets. There is no suggestion, either, that they cannot be dismissed without the Central government’s approval. So why on earth is permission required if they wish to dismiss themselves?

The situation is a little confused by a quaint convention found in some western countries, under which a politician who has suffered some painful embarrassment, like being caught deceiving the public or losing a spectacular libel case, offers his or her resignation in the hope that it will be refused. Sometimes this hope is realised. In these cases the person resigning does not really want to lose his job – he is offering to jump before he is pushed. However there is no place for this in Hong Kong, where politicians are immune to shame and embarrassment.

Somebody who resigns really wants to quit his job. The idea that if you sincerely wish to resign your boss can refuse to allow you to do so is baseless. You are not a slave. I infer that it must also be erroneous to suppose that someone else has a right to veto your resignation and insist that you stay in the job.

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John Tsang. File Photo: Gov HK.

The person currently awaiting “approval” is Mr John Tsang. There is no questioning the sincerity of his resignation – he wants to run for Chief Executive. Accordingly he has lost one essential qualification for his job – the desire to do it. What is the point of pretending that his resignation might in some circumstances be “disapproved”? You can’t chain him to his desk. Is some secret policeman going to be smuggled into the Central Government Offices for a short indoctrination session? “We have ways of making you write the next budget speech…”

Mr Tsang’s wait for approval has led to some bizarre journalism. It is only human to want to see patterns in events. The poet Rimbaud saw palaces in the clouds; ancient astronomers saw animals, fish and virgins in the night sky. Contemplating events in secretive places like Beijing the spectators are tempted to find meanings in trifles. Every hug or handshake is milked for political significance. So we have the question of how long it takes for a resignation to be “accepted”. Apparently in past cases this has ranged from a couple of days to nearly three months.

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File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The most plausible and boring explanation for this would be that resignations are passed to a committee which only meets once a quarter. How long you have to wait depends on when the next meeting is. But you could hardly write a column on that basis. So we are fed the entertaining notion that Beijing officials are desperately trying to hit a happy mean between approving too quickly, which would look like an endorsement of Mr Tsang’s election aspirations, or approving too late, which would look like an endorsement of someone else’s.

Meantime, we are told, Mr Tsang is handicapped because he cannot rent offices, recruit helpers, or canvass support among the electors. I can’t see why not. I presume he is no longer doing the job of Financial Secretary, as a replacement has been announced. I hope he has paid three month’s wages in lieu of notice, as anyone else who resigned from a senior office with immediate effect would have to do. He is to all intents and purposes an ex-Financial Secretary. It might appeal to some autonomous-minded voters if he started behaving like one right away.

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Approval to resign? Finance Sec. John Tsang is answerable to Hongkongers, not Beijing