E. “Hong Kong’s Blind Spot” by Nickolas Frisch

The territory lacks a law to ensure the government preserves its records.


A government destroys documents with impunity; its Security Bureau advises public employees to shred official papers; citizens seeking justice find pertinent government files mysteriously empty. This certainly doesn’t sound like Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese enclave renowned for its competent civil servants, protection of civil liberties and world-class government services.

Alone in the developed world, the Special Administrative Region’s government does not afford public records the protections enjoyed by other public property, public funds and public employees. This week’s release of a new report by the Hong Kong think tank Civic Exchange called “The Memory Hole: Why Hong Kong Needs an Archives Law” comes amid stark reminders of the consequences of negligent records management.

Relocating to new offices in September, high-level policy-making bureaus in the Hong Kong government destroyed more than 1,000 linear meters of documents without following their own procedures for expert appraisal. Police, immigration and hospital records have gone missing repeatedly in recent years, frustrating efforts to seek justice, improve efficiency or even determine basic facts.

This is not for lack of money, technology or human capital. Hong Kong’s leaders are simply reluctant to employ a tried-and-tested policy mechanism long since enacted in the U.K., U.S., Australia, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines and even mainland China: an archives law.

Archives laws ensure that governments keep adequate records of their business while preserving historic documents for future generations. When enforced through a strong and impartial judiciary, they constitute both a foundation and a last line of defense for government accountability. Just as auditors-general and public prosecutors enjoy professional independence and government-wide powers to pursue their respective roles, official archivists are trained professionals with final say over a government’s document disposal and preservation practices.

This is not rocket science, either in terms of complexity or expense. Legislatively grounded records systems have been refined in countries such as Singapore and Australia, where Hong Kong routinely seeks policy ideas. Hong Kong’s listless Government Records Service already has a purpose-built facility, a budget and staff. Only a clear legal mandate is lacking.

The Legislative Council concluded long ago that archives “legislation … would not involve significant financial implications.” Yet as abuses mount and history slips away, no action has been taken.

Beyond highlighting the impotence of the Government Records Service and the incoherent mishmash of records management “requirements” and “guidelines,” the Civic Exchange report identifies two particular areas of failure. First, while the world has gone digital, Hong Kong’s records policy remains frozen in time, unwilling or unable to tap a massive pool of global expertise on the construction and maintenance of reliable e-records management systems. Bureaucrats are advised to “print and file” important documents, a cumbersome and wasteful solution ill-befitting an aspiring high-tech hub.

Second, Hong Kong’s feeble records regulation does not extend to statutory bodies, private institutions with public functions found in many common law jurisdictions. Again, Hong Kong is an outlier. Even the Australian Egg Corporation, a statutory body, is subject to the country’s Archives Act of 1983. Hong Kong’s Airport Authority, Hospital Authority, Housing Authority and Monetary Authority, to name just a few, are not covered by government regulations.

Other deficiencies abound. Heritage and culture are integral to Hong Kong’s bid to assert itself as “Asia’s World City”, but policy does not reflect this supposed priority. Impartial and reliable institutions also remain a core component of Hong Kong’s global branding; but cases of official malfeasance and popular dissatisfaction, exacerbated by disappearing records, are tarnishing that image.

Even as the public’s property and heritage are mismanaged, people are denied adequate access to what is available. Unlike libraries, clinics, prisons and e-waste recycling centers, the Government Records Service does not maintain extended or weekend hours to increase citizen access to its holdings. This is not a respectful use of taxpayer money.

As the crucial economic and cultural interface between China and the world, Hong Kong should be a global leader in integrating information technology with the good governance practices for which it is renowned. This will create other opportunities for regional leadership: Singapore’s recently retired National Archives Director traveled the globe lecturing on archival practices that minimize legal liability and environmental impact while maximizing heritage preservation.

In contrast, the incumbent director of Hong Kong’s Government Records Service is untrained, a career bureaucrat who arrived from a previous appointment in the prisons service. Despite high standards of scholarship and academic freedom locally, no one turns to the Hong Kong government to learn about regional history, while Singapore’s archives director is thanked in many books.

Hong Kong should cherish its status as a regional role model, reinforcing what it does well and fixing its failings. Passing an archives law is a simple, cost-effective and very necessary step to bring Hong Kong into the 21st century.

Mr. Frisch co-authored “The Memory Hole: Why Hong Kong Needs an Archives Law” at the Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank in Hong Kong.



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