Jamming the shredder – Archive law in Hong Kong

The Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong (LRC) is consulting the public on whether Hong Kong’s current public records management practice and public access to information needs a revamp. Pro-democracy politicians welcome the move, but worry legislation might come too late.

On Thursday, the LRC published two consultation papers after nearly six years of studies. One is on preserving records as archives, and another on access to live information.

Victors write history – and erase it

“Archives record decisions, actions and memories… Archives and records are also tools by which governments can make themselves accountable,” says the LRC, which is in favour of an archives law.

“It does see a case for the introduction of an archives law to further strengthen the management, protection and preservation of public records and archives in Hong Kong,” it adds.

Ms Claudia Mo, a pan-democractic legislator, welcomes the introduction of the law. She’s concerned that sensitive information would continue to be destroyed.

Advocates say that the absence of the law has resulted in a record high of 1.2 billion documents being destroyed during the tenure of former chief executive Mr CY Leung.

Mr Leung has been embroiled in a scandal that involves a HK$50 million deal with Australian engineering firm UGL. He failed to declare the deal, from which he received part of the sum, when serving as the city’s chief.

The absence of the records has made it difficult to investigate Mr Leung’s affairs with UGL.

“The archives law is crucial to the public’s right to know and public interests. Hong Kong already lags behind the international community,” Ms Mo says.

Currently, Hong Kong does not have an Archives Law. Government records and archives management are regulated under a regime that regards the Government Records Service as the central records management and service agency.

The Law Reform Commission studied the law and practice of Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand and Singapore, and found out that the jurisdictions “have in place an archives law of varying breadths and depths.”

The call for an Archives Law also received attention in 2016, when Mr Eddie Chu, a lawmaker concerning housing plans in Yuen Long, accused Mr Leung’s government of colluding with the rural committee leaders.

No record, it never happened

In response to the accusation, the government said there was no record of the key meetings that Mr Leung admitted he had with the rural leaders.

Mr Simon Chu, former director of Government Records Service, has been calling for an Archives Law.

“In democratic countries, policymakers take the initiative to legislate the law to show their respect to people’s right to know,” he said in an interview in 2016. “When we need to ask for it in Hong Kong, that means the government has a lot to hide.”

Politicians who support the introduction of an archives law worry that the government may destroy more documents before the legislation comes into force.

“The government may postpone the legislation after consultations,” says Mr Charles Mok , legislator representing the IT sector.

“Only when the Archives Law and the Law of Access to Information stipulate legal sanctions can they have deterrent effects to stop the government from removing and damaging public records without compliance or authorization,” he adds.

He worries that both laws could end up like the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, under which punishment is not severe enough for data breach.

The consultation period on the two papers will last till March 5, 2019.