Book Review:
Public Sector Power and Public Service Pay in Hong Kong: A Survey of the Political Economy of Pay Determination in a British Colony (1965-1985)
Author: T. K. Ghose

Ghose, T. K. (2008). Public Sector Power and Public Service Pay in Hong Kong: A Survey of the Political Economy of Pay Determination in a British Colony (1965-1985), City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Reviewed by: Alan R. Nankervis

This book is an adaptation of the author’s doctoral thesis, and represents an important contribution to our knowledge of the development of Civil Service pay systems in Hong Kong, and indeed to the history of Hong Kong itself during this period. The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which carefully and comprehensively charts and dissects the multiple factors which shaped Civil Service pay systems during this period. In essence, the book addresses the conundrum faced by a quasi-colonial administration morphing into an efficient and modern meritocracy—“whilst it is reasonable to conclude that … the process of pay determination in Hong Kong was reasonably ‘objective’, and by and large, ‘fair’ … (but) some misgivings linger on as to whether the process was manipulated by the top brass of the bureaucracy to further the interest of the civil service in general, and their own parochial interest in particular” (p. 249).

The book begins with an Introduction which provides a rationale for the study and a brief contextual overview of Hong Kong between 1965 and 1985. This particular period was chosen in order to allow reflection on the significance of the severe cuts in civil service pay which were actioned by the incoming government favoured by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and which gave impetus to a completely new direction in the determination of administrative rewards in the former British colony. It uses generic models to analyse the construction of pay systems, whilst incorporating the peculiar characteristics of Hong Kong.

The second chapter analyses the inherent nature of the Hong Kong Civil Service, providing readers with a surprisingly clear and logical perspective of its development, and again relates this to a series of general taxonomies and conceptual models, including Marx and Weber. I was interested to note the author’s informed observation that, contrary to received wisdom,“ while it may be valid to argue that deference to authority is in consonance with Chinese classical tradition, this point is often overemphasized” (p. 87), based upon a number of sound arguments. Such critiques are seldom posited.

Chapter three is an exploration of industrial relations developments in the Hong Kong Civil Service over the period, as an analytical prism for the understanding of the construction of pay systems, and is both succinct and accessible. It examines the two “distinctive features” of Hong Kong unions—namely, union growth and density; and the “predominance” of white-collar unions—and concludes that “there was no underlying political philosophy to provide a cohesive underpinning for trade unionism in the civil service as a whole” (p. 153). This statement provides an effective segue to the following two chapters which discuss the machinery and processes of pay determination in the Hong Kong Civil Service. As the crux of the book, these chapters are clear and comprehensive, and are well-integrated with prior and succeeding chapters. They provide an invaluable record of the characteristics of the pay system between 1965 and 1985, and will no doubt be useful for subsequent researchers on the issue. The final two chapters critically analyse the bureaucratic infrastructure of the Hong Kong Civil Service, and a cogent overall summary of the book’s coverage.

Overall, this is a surprisingly interesting approach to (what might have otherwise been a dry) topic, which has been researched carefully, structured efficiently, and written with style and imagination. I believe that it makes an important contribution to the literature on human resource management in Hong Kong, as well as to the history of the Hong Kong Civil Service. It is likely to be read by both scholars and remuneration professionals alike.

Alan R. Nankervis
RMIT University