Are you 50-odd years of age and looking for something lucrative and not too demanding to do for five years before you retire to somewhere with cleaner air and a nicer climate? Then I have news for you.
Our new chief executive is trying to recruit policy secretaries and it seems the hunt is not going well. Distress signals are flying in all directions. Some of these ominous signals may just be an attempt to soften us up for the discovery that most of the new policy secretaries will be the senior civil servant who is next in the queue, which is precisely how the system was NOT supposed to work. But judging by the number of people who claim to have been invited and refused, sincere efforts are being made to recruit outside the usual circle. Get your application in now.
The attractions are considerable. Let us start with the salary. The average remuneration of ministers was reported last year to be just under HK$300,000 a month. At the time the government was proposing to raise this by 12 per cent for the next term.
This will keep you at the levels to which our ministers are accustomed, which is that they are better paid than any president or prime minister you can think of, including President Trump and Mr Xi Jinping. The only officials in the world who are better paid than ours are senior ministers in the government of Singapore. But to get those jobs you have to live in Singapore. Yawn. Back in Hong Kong, copious unaudited expenses are also offered.
You can select and appoint a political assistant for up to HK$100,000 a month. The government will supply you with a deputy who will do the less attractive parts of the job, a driver and car, secretary, press relations person, and other flunkies. You will have a luxurious office in Central with its own toilet and free parking. Which of course you will not need because your official car will take you everywhere, unless you are in a serious hurry, in which case you can ask for the official helicopter.
Numerous trips abroad beckon, for which you will take the VIP channel to your First Class seat and relax in your personal suite at the destination when “fact-finding” gets too strenuous. Be picky. Geneva or Paris offer interesting facts and informative conferences. Leave Tashkent to your deputy.
In theory, you will be expected in return for all these nice things to come up with policies. It will be your pleasant task to tackle Hong Kong’s numerous problems and make the people happy and grateful.
In practice there is no need to lose any sleep over this. The really important decisions are made in the Liaison Office. The less important ones will be made by Carrie Lam, who is notoriously impervious to other people’s suggestions. The trivial stuff can be left to your civil servants, who have been working in the field for many years and understand it better than you do anyway. Your job is to foster the illusion that the government knows what it is doing and where it is going.
This may seem a difficult task, but remember there is no penalty for failure. When the “responsibility system” was first introduced we were beguiled with the prospect of people who messed up actually being held responsible and maybe fired.
This is not how it has worked out in practice. It is in fact quite difficult to think of anything short of being investigated by the ICAC which can dent the confidence which chief executives place in their chosen ministers. This is of course because ditching a minister implies that the original appointment was an error. So ministers can survive lack of popularity, manifest incompetence, serial scandals… just keep out of the criminal courts.
You may be discouraged by frequent complaints in the local off-shoots of the People’s Daily that the “political atmosphere” deters people from taking up ministerial jobs. Do not be. This is nonsense. True, on your rare visits to LegCo you may be subjected to hostile questioning. You may be the target of flying fruit or other objects. But these are rare showers in a long summer of unstinted admiration.
You will, on appointment, become a JP, which is meaningless but looks nice on a business card. A Bauhinia bauble will follow in a few years. You will be invited to numerous events, not all of them boring, at which you will be an honoured guest. They may ask you to make a short speech. Your political assistant will write it; this is what she is for.
You can fill your evenings with as many balls or dinners as your liver can stand. Exclusive clubs will seek you as a member. The media will want to interview you and most of the media, these days, are on your side. Subversive website offerings can be dismissed as “fake news”.
The only drawback, actually, is that you may think you are serving the Chief Secretary or the HKSAR government, but really you are working for the Liaison Office.
So you will need to draw to your political assistant’s attention the need for periodic obeisance to Beijing: approving mentions of Belt and Road, denunciations of independence advocates, warm approval for flaky petitions from the Silent Majority, strong support for the police force, stern disapproval of Occupy Central, Joshua Wong, etc. Embarrassing incidents like kidnappings from Hong Kong hotels should be greeted with calls to wait until all the facts are revealed. With any luck you can get through your term of office before this happens.
Last but not least, remember that while you may not be doing much as a minister you are laying the foundations for a lucrative post-retirement career in business. You will make a lot of useful contacts and some of them will suppose – I hope erroneously – that they owe you a favour.
Of course after five years in a publicly-funded shower of gold you may feel that further work is a less attractive prospect than sitting on a beach somewhere. The problem with this is that before taking office you are supposed to give up you overseas passport.
But don’t worry. This prohibition does not apply to your wife and the desirable destinations are happy to admit spouses. This means that you need to be on good terms with the lady and that in turn means forgoing the erotic possibilities which will certainly come you way in the corridors of power.
So have a good time, but behave yourself.