Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants have been told they have four weeks to sign a document pledging their loyalty to the Chinese-ruled city’s mini-constitution and dedication to the government.
More than 4,000 civil servants in the global financial hub have already made the declaration since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in June, which punishes anything China considers to be subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
Western governments and rights groups are concerned that the security law is being used to squash dissent in the Chinese-ruled city. Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing say the law is necessary to bring stability to the semi-autonomous former British colony after a year of pro-democracy demonstrations. Critics say it crushes wide-ranging freedoms promised with the handover that occurred 23 years ago.
Civil servants taking the oath will promise to uphold Hong Kong’s Basic Law and “bear allegiance” to the city and its government, as well as to be dedicated in their duties.
The Civil Service Bureau said in a Jan. 15 statement that all civil servants should in “no uncertain terms acknowledge and accept these basic duties”.
Those who refuse to sign the pledge could lose their jobs.
“Negligence or refusal to take the oath or to duly sign and return the declaration by a civil servant casts serious doubts on his or her willingness to take up these basic duties and his or her suitability to remain in the civil service,” the statement said.
In the past, authorities have disqualified opposition candidates in elections, as well as pro-democracy lawmakers, on grounds similar oaths of allegiance were “dishonest”.
In a circular to civil servants, officials said it was not feasible to list “exhaustively” all types of improper conduct as they may come in many different forms.
However, it said advocating or supporting “Hong Kong independence“, refusing to recognize China’s sovereignty over the city, soliciting intervention by foreign or external forces into the city’s affairs, or carrying out activities that endanger national security were not allowed.
Any act that “aims to undermine the government in the governance and administration of Hong Kong” would also be seen as violating the declaration, according to the circular.
The government said merely expressing views in public to oppose a certain policy or decision of the government would not normally constitute improper conduct.
Ma Ngok, associate professor of the Department of Politics and Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong told Radio Free Asia that the statement shows that the government is clearly anxious by the number of civil servants who supported the 2019 anti-extradition and pro-democracy movement.
“Back in 2019, civil servants gathered in support of the protest movement, including the New Civil Service Union,” Ma said.
“The central government will also have concerns about whether civil servants will strike, or engage in other forms of collective resistance,” he said. “This could paralyze the government, so they want to prevent that from happening.”
Ma said the condition that civil servants stay on message, without stipulating what types of activity that could result in disciplinary action, will create an unnerving effect.
“Regardless of whether a civil servant is speaking in an individual or [official] capacity, they will no longer be able to express public opposition to the government,” Ma said. “There will be a chilling effect for many people, and the fear of being reported.”
“The whole environment for civil servants will change because of this,” he said.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters on Jan. 19 that it was “only natural” that civil servants should pledge allegiance to the government while warning that consequences would follow for anyone violating it, reported Radio Free Asia.
“If somebody who has taken an oath to swear allegiance and pledge loyalty has subsequently done something which is in breach of the oath, then appropriate actions will have to be taken by the authorities,” Lam said.
“Nothing extra is being asked of them in signing this declaration,” she said. “It is a matter of course … that they support the [Hong Kong] government.”
The circular follows the arrest of 53 democracy activists in dawn raids across Hong Kong on Jan. 6 with authorities stating an unofficial vote held last year to choose opposition candidates in city elections was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government. About 1,000 police took part in the raids, which included searches of the offices of a pollster and a law firm. On Jan. 15, Hong Kong police also arrested 11 people over suspected crimes related to assisting a group of 12 pro-democracy activists accused of trying to flee the city by boat for Taiwan last year.