The study of public administration in Hong Kong and Macao: Evolutionary paths, constraints and opportunities

Shiu Hing Sonny LO, Bing Leung Anthony CHEUNG

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


While public administration was recognized quite early on as a field as denoted by the name of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a full-fledged programme – Master of Public Administration (MPA) was first launched by the University of Hong Kong in the late 1970s, in response to the needs of the civil service for professionalization. The society of Hong Kong demanded for more administrators knowledgeable in public policy and administration, while the colonial political system was characterized by the recruitment of many Executive and Administrative Officers who were expected to possess more advanced knowledge in the skills of governance as Hong Kong became a more complex and demanding metropolis. In the 1980s and 1990s, the growing availability of programmes at local universities to meet rising demands took place in tandem with the government sending more civil servants to overseas universities for public administration and public management studies, especially in the UK and USA. Within the local tertiary sector, both the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong tended to ground their programmes in the traditional political science and government administration roots. At the City University of Hong Kong, a new university and late comer to the scene in the mid 1980s, emphasis was put on public policy and public management. Its Master of Arts in Public Policy & Management (MAPPM) programme, instead of opting for the conventional MPA content, featured new approaches and practices in public management and catered to the needs of practitioners in a broader public sector context. Nowadays, the public administration education field in Hong Kong is much more diverse and multidisciplinary, complemented by a growing volume of local literature supported by case studies and local professors researching on Hong Kong. In democratic jurisdictions, the study of public administration has traditionally based on the dichotomy between administration and politics. Such dichotomy has been less clear cut in Hong Kong, given its long history as a British colony governed bureaucratically by administrators in the absence of democratic politics and parties. Early academics like Peter Harris described Hong Kong as a bureaucratic polity. Such essence of government by bureaucrats has persisted over the years witnessing the rise of local elections and politicians, and the implementation of public sector reforms in the 1990s in the same way as some advanced Western administrative systems. Indeed, Hong Kong, along with Singapore, is the pioneer of new public management (NPM) in Asia. The study of public administration in Hong Kong, unlike other democratic systems, has suffered from two „disconnects‟. First, the bulk of international literature largely grounded in politics-administration dichotomy is insufficiently relevant to Hong Kong even though it is evolving into a quasi-political regime with the introduction of political appointment of bureau chiefs and undersecretaries over the past decade. Its political system within the one-party rule of China under the „one country two systems‟ framework is one “which is neither parliamentary fish nor presidential fowl” in the words of Ian Scott – “the executive, the bureaucracy and the legislature (which is divided within itself) each pursue their own agendas, punctuated by occasional skirmishes on the boundaries of their domains and by subterranean campaigns to extend their jurisdictions”. Such disconnect needs to be researched and analyzed in more vigorous and systemic ways, perhaps as part of the Asian systems of public administration under more authoritarian democratic and non-democratic regimes, to which Western-generated public administration literature cannot be readily applied. Second, there is disconnect between those teaching public administration and those studying on public administration postgraduate programmes, many of whom working in government departments and public bodies, or as legislative assistants and party researchers. The former are mostly academics from the outset with limited on-the-ground experience in government, politics or administration and relying mostly on academic texts and case studies written by others. For example, academics in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong had produced works drawing upon the Master dissertations of their MPA graduate students. In recent years, as more locally-groomed senior civil servants retired from government, they provide a pool of teachers with extensive practical experience in public service by accepting invitation to be honorary and visiting professors teaching in some Master-level public administration programmes. Hopefully, the gap between public administration programmes and real experience in civil service can be narrowed to some extent. Still, there is a need to nurture a new generation of scholars equally strong in public administration theories and practices. Macao has witnessed a clearer dichotomy between public administration and politics since the Flower Revolution in Portugal in the mid-1970s. The colonial bureaucracy in Macao under Portuguese rule was marked by a politicized leadership from Portugal, while the civil service was staffed by the racially mixed Macanese (Portuguese-Chinese ancestry) and local Chinese, with the latter taking up more junior posts until closer to the handover to China in December 1999. Civil servants were expected to implement policies formulated by the political appointees at the top level. As the transfer of sovereignty and administration from Portugal to China became imminent, the localization of the civil service, in the form of recruiting and promoting more local Chinese to the upper echelons, was accompanied by the development and growth of public administration programmes at both Bachelor and Master levels. Examples could be found at the University of Macao, and later the Macao Polytechnic, the Macao University of Science and Technology, and recently St. Joseph University. By examining the evolution of public administration education at the universities in both Hong Kong and Macao, this paper highlights its features and the distinctiveness of different programmes, and goes on to critically examine their strengths and limitations, with reference to the context of politics and administration in the two cities, as well as the present state of their public administration paradigms and practices.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2012
EventAsian Association for Public Administration (AAPA) Annual Conference 2012 : Administrative Innovation and Reform: Local culture and traditions, international learning and influence - Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong, China
Duration: 10 Feb 201211 Feb 2012


ConferenceAsian Association for Public Administration (AAPA) Annual Conference 2012 : Administrative Innovation and Reform: Local culture and traditions, international learning and influence
Abbreviated titleAAPA 2012
CityHong Kong


Lo, S., & Cheung, A. B. L. (2012, February). The study of public administration in Hong Kong and Macao: Evolutionary paths, constraints and opportunities. Paper presented at the Asian Association for Public Administration (AAPA) 3rd Annual Conference Administrative Innovation and Reform: Local culture and traditions, international learning and influence, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong, China.


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