"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"What sweeping reforms did former AOs Anson Chan and Donald Tsang bring during their decades of governance? Not much."
With the usual hyperventilating, critics came out in numbers to slam the appointment of John Lee to the role of Chief Secretary. Lee, a former Deputy Commissioner of Police and the incumbent Secretary for Security, is the first former member of the disciplined services to hold the position.
While the ascent of police officers to top positions in government will primarily be analysed from a security perspective, a more compelling and largely ignored aspect is perhaps the desire to bring a 'can-do' attitude to the civil service.
But, of course, the upper echelons of government is traditionally reserved for members of the administrative officer (AO) cadre. So I suspect a few noses are out of joint and that fed the bleating.
Most commentators agree that Beijing's trust in the AO cadre has waned because they sat on the fence during the civil unrest of 2019, biding their time. That's not to suggest that these officials took a political stance, far from it. Instead, they adopted their usual wait and see attitude. As Bob Dylan asserted, "And don't speak too soon. For the wheel's still in spin. And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'. For the loser now will be later to win."
Thus, the police were fighting alone without the back-up of the rest of the civil service. It soon dawned on the heads of the other disciplined services, which way the wind was blowing. They then came out in support to provide manpower and logistics.
Some of the criticisms of Lee's suitability for the job are laughable. For example, people alleged he's inexperienced and unsuited to the task. That's after four decades in government, including holding down a ministerial post during a crisis. Yet, the same people want a 24-year-old running Hong Kong, a young man who has never had a job nor organised anything beyond street protests.
Lee's replacement as Secretary for Security, former Commissioner of Police, Chris Tang, sparked mutterings of a police state taking shape. Give me a break, please. That's palpable nonsense and defies reality. Are not the independent judiciary still in place? The last time I looked, the guys and gals in wigs were still there.
So, it's a stretch to claim we've become a police state. After all, critics continue to voice their criticisms, including me aiming at the government's failure to tackle many issues.
And while I agree Beijing has placed a greater emphasis on security, that's something to be expected after the mob ransacked our parliament.
Moreover, if the powers exercised by the police in Hong Kong are the definition of a 'police state', how does that sit against the more draconian public order laws in the UK? How about the laws that curtail free speech in Scotland? I could go on.
Nonetheless, the appointment of Lee and Tang represents a change. It speaks to a concern about the effectiveness and willingness of the Hong Kong civil service to do its job.
What sweeping changes did former AOs Anson Chan and Donald Tsang bring during their decades of governance? Not much. Poverty remained unaddressed, while the housing shortage was never tackled in a meaningful way. Instead, these mandarins applied the usual rote consultations, a plodding approach, no real change, and then tea and medals.
Moreover, while Beijing may have doubts, the AOs still are dominant. Groomed to lead Hong Kong since colonial times, I'd opine that many in this group have grown too comfortable, pompous, adept at deflection and unwilling to deliver the initiatives that Hong Kong needs. Some of these people proved more twisty shifty than a twisty shifty thing.
The AO cadre continued to function after 1997 much as it had before. Endless meetings, bureaucratic machinations and disdain for anyone who dared to question their right to rule the roost. I had the misfortune to attend meetings with these people. 'Yes, Minister' came to mind, except it wasn't as funny.
As a consequence for many years, it's evident that several key departments have become moribund. Loitering in their offices, locked into process and analysis to the point of paralysis, not much tangible happens. As a result, many enforcement issues remain unaddressed, as the recent fire in Aberdeen Harbour demonstrated.
With some boats illegally occupied, and packed on moorings, the risk was evident. Sure, we will see a flurry of activity after such an event, but it's soon back to the office and heads down.
Meanwhile, the police by the nature of their role must be on the streets, dealing with whatever lands in their lap. They need to be proactive on crime to prevent things from getting out of hand. By default, the police are in direct contact with the community without the ability to hide away. In the process, the police take the flak for matters beyond their control.
Take on-street parking as an example. In crowded Hong Kong, without adequate off-street parking, street obstruction is rampant. Yet, the police could ticket cars all day and still not make a dent in the issue because such actions only have a short-term impact.
Meanwhile, the policy for parking rests with the Transport Department. A failure to coordinate an approach across departments to ensure adequate off-street parking and enforcement penalties that bite creates the situation we see. The police are left holding the problem. And this applies across a raft of issues.
I saw with illegal land occupation, departments shifting responsibility with breathtaking audacity. Had the same amount of time and energy been spent tackling the matter, departments could have resolved the issue years ago.
That's not to say the police are themselves are incapable of shifting responsibility; they've had to learn and play that game. Plus, officers can adopt an attitude that gives a low priority to matters that citizens feel deserve a focus. So, for instance, a barking dog is hardly gripping stuff for a cops but a real issue if you live next door.
I suppose if the appointment of former senior police officers to top jobs in the civil service can achieve anything, it should be shaking up the current complacency and lack of focus on results.
So let's see how this unfolds.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.