In this excerpted chapter from Hong Kong Confidential, author David T. K. Wong recounts his time as Hong Kong’s deputy postmaster general in 1980, and explains what scheme Special Branch were operating in the basement of the GPO.
The Q List
When I was installed as the Deputy Postmaster General at the General Post Office at Connaught Place at the beginning of 1980, I was delighted to find myself in an office with a marvellous view of the harbour. The building had been completed only in August of 1976, as the colony’s fourth General Post Office. It was on a prime harbour-front site that was worth a fortune, a mere stone’s throw from the Star Ferry Pier.
The previous General Post Office, opened in 1911, had been an architectural wonder to behold. It used to be located at the corner of Pedder Street and Connaught Road Central. But it had to be surrendered to make way for building the Central Station of the Mass Transit Railway. Its replacement was externally not half as pleasing on the eye but it did come with a very spacious and up-to-date sorting office in the basement.
At the time I joined the department, there was a staff of approximately 5,000. Apart from the concentration at the General Post Office, they were scattered among 40 branch post offices around the colony. The oldest branch was at Stanley, opened in 1937. That branch is still operating today in its original building. The number of branches has since climbed, to approximately 130 I think, including the odd two or three mobile ones.
The departmental structure was then quite a simple affair. There were beneath the Postmaster General and his Deputy two expatriate Assistant Postmasters General, one to head postal services and the other the telecommunications side. Most of the staff worked on the postal side. The telecommunications side was made up of technical staff who oversaw the two franchises granted for local and overseas telecommunications services respectively.
The local telephone franchise, valid until 1995, was held by the Hong Kong Telephone Company. The company was restricted to an annual return of 16% of shareholders’ funds.
The overseas telephone franchise was granted to a Hong Kong subsidiary of Cable & Wireless. The parent company had its origins in a British company set up in the 1860s to provide cable links to various parts of the British Empire. With the steady rise of wireless communications, the different communication methods were merged into a single company in 1934, known as Cable and Wireless Limited.
Following the Labour Party’s victory in the 1945 general election in the United Kingdom, the company was nationalised. Its domestic telecommunications monopoly was passed to the British Post Office while it continued to operate telecommunications services outside of Britain. One of its subsidiaries held a franchise for Hong Kong in return for a two percent royalty on turnover.
For some unclear reason, no profit limitation clause had been included in that franchise. That sometimes led to unseemly results. For instance, in 1992 the company made an annual profit of HK$5.6 billion on shareholders’ fund of HK$12.2 billion — a whopping 47% annual return on capital. A veritable wet dream for a monopoly, even by the colony’s freewheeling standards!
An announcement at the end of 1979 of my projected arrival in the new year as the Deputy Postmaster General caused a minor stir among the staff. They did not know exactly what to expect. I was not only an outsider but I would be the first Chinese to hold a top post in the department. The Postmaster General was on his last tour before retiring in January of 1982, so he was in a relaxed and happy-go-lucky mood. He was more than willing to give me my head. My priority was, naturally, to defuse the threat of another postal strike.
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Staff and management relations within the department were not particularly harmonious. Otherwise there would not have been issues leading to repeated strikes.
I found that the administrative and clerical back-up for running such a large department was somewhat inadequate. So I requested the Secretariat to assign a Senior Executive Officer by the name of Wong Yiu-Wing to take over as the new Departmental Secretary. I had worked with Yiu-Wing in the Home Affairs Department before and had found him a highly efficient and capable officer. My request was quickly met and Yiu-Wing lived up to his record for sound bureaucratic reconstructive surgery.
Then it came down to familiarising myself with the large number of trade unions and staff associations within the department and to getting a feel of the personalities of their office bearers. The grades in the department ranged from the lowly postmen on the beat to clerical staff, manual labourers, night watchmen, Postal Officers, Controllers of Posts and telecommunications engineers and technicians. The interests of one group did not necessarily coincide with those of another.
The established way for the management to communicate with staff unions was to hold, from time to time, a general meeting wherein employment issues could be aired and thrashed out. That general meeting was called the Forum and all staff groups were represented. For practical reasons, based on the number of postal staff unions involved, the Forum was chaired by the Assistant Postmaster General in charge of postal services.
It was an unsatisfactory system because the chairman, being an expatriate, knew no Chinese whereas many union representatives of the lower grades knew only enough English to read the addresses on letters and other postal items. That meant that all discussions had to be laboriously filtered through an interpreter. That process provided ample scope for misunderstandings.
Furthermore, many of the issues raised appeared to be of a micro nature, like shift work, promotion prospects, the maximum weight of any mail bag being carried by a postman, the varying lengths of delivery beats, and so forth. A majority of those should have been resolved at a much lower level. To bring such matters before a large formal meeting took up too much of everybody’s time. It also encouraged a “me too” attitude whereby a concession granted to one union engendered a similar demand from another.
After my arrival, I decided to take over the chairmanship of the Forum. I told the Forum that since Chinese had been declared an official language back in 1972 and since everybody except the Assistant Postmaster General spoke Chinese, proceedings would henceforth be conducted in Chinese. The interpreter would be retained to explain proceedings to the Assistant Postmaster General.
I further suggested that the Forum should be used for discussing major structural or career issues; minor tweaking of working conditions could more easily be settled in face-to-face meetings with representatives of the particular union concerned. The door to my office was always open and I hoped union representatives would make use of that facility. It was unnecessary to involve all unions in every discussion.
The pressing issue for the public, I emphasised, was the threat of another postal strike. There might well be certain disparities between the salary scales and promotion prospects for some postal workers, compared with those in other grades in government service. But management could not conduct talks under duress. The sooner union officials explained their dissatisfactions to me, without any threat of a strike, the sooner disparities could be examined and dealt with.
The union officials, after due deliberations among themselves, sensibly accepted my invitation. They called in separate contingents at my office. It transpired that there were indeed certain anomalies. The two sides worked through them, identified the ones enjoying mutual support, and made proposals for changes to the administration. The proposals were then left to work their way through the central bureaucracy.
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Meanwhile, on the personal level, government approval for my premature retirement came through, setting off my required year of notice. The moment the approval was received, I sent in a further application for permission to take up employment with Li & Fung without any cooling-off period, arguing that overseeing postal services could have no bearing upon the core business activities of Li & Fung.
That second application was also duly approved. But then I sent in a third application to tidy up a technical detail. I would have, at the end of my year’s notice, an accumulated leave balance of six months. From the time I stopped working till the end of my leave, I would still be technically in the employ of government and hence be entitled to the usual fringe benefits, like subsidised and furnished quarters.
But a “serving” officer could not take up employment in the private sector without permission. I wanted to start immediately with Li & Fung, without having to sit on my hands for six months waiting for my pre-retirement leave to expire. The money involved was, of course, a consideration. By working right away, I would be able to draw on both my full civil service salary and my Li & Fung pay at the same time. So I applied for permission to work in the private sector while on pre-retirement leave. That too was duly approved.
However, there was yet another bureaucratic procedure I had to comply with. It involved a once-in-a-lifetime decision on whether I wished to commute a part of my pension into a lump sum payment.
At the time I began contemplating retirement, the customary retirement age was 55 and an officer could opt for early retirement at the age of 50. A pensioner would also be entitled to convert up to 25% of his pension into a lump sum payment. The theory behind it was to give him some flexibility transiting from work into retirement. He might, for example, wish to migrate elsewhere, purchase a home, fund an overseas education of a child or grandchild, etc., for which a lump sum would come in very handy.
Any commutation would be based on an actuarial calculation that a pensioner would, on average, live to collect his pension for — if I can remember correctly — something like 14.2 years. A pensioner would naturally have to take his own health prospects and expectation of life into account. If he figured he could only live for a couple of years after retirement, then it would make sense to take the bird in hand.
Just before I was due to make my election, however, one of the factors in the calculation was changed. Instead of being allowed to commute up to 25%, a pensioner was permitted to commute up to 50%.
I believe the pressure for that change came from expatriate civil servants. They had made representations to London to guarantee their pensions in the event the colony could no longer meet its obligations after sovereignty had been reverted to China in 1997. They had been spooked by the deluded Whitehall belief that the place would fall apart at the seams both economically and commercially without British management.
London was thus caught up in the illogicality of its own presumptions. But the domestic calls on the British exchequer were many and it was reluctant to act as a guarantor for the pensions of ex-colonial civil servants. A compromise was eventually arrived at whereby a pensioner could commute up to 50% of pension as a lump sum.
That decision was, in my view, ill-advised and selfish, catering to a sectarian need without being mindful of its psychological effects on the general public confidence during a delicate time of transition.
I had not the slightest doubt that Hong Kong would continue to thrive and prosper, with or without the British. If it had not been for the need for ready money to send my two younger sons overseas, I would not have commuted any part of my pension. In the circumstances, I commuted only 25% of my pension and I have regretted it ever since.
Today, 37 years after my retirement, I am still drawing a Hong Kong pension and paying Hong Kong taxes. But I still have a long way to go to beat my grandfather’s record of drawing a Crown pension for 41 years!
Since my retirement, the rules have been changed again and again. I believe the current retirement age is 65. I have no idea what the current commutation factors might be.
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On the staff relations front, the proposed changes in the terms of service for postal workers were fairly swiftly agreed by the administration and the threatened postal strike was averted.
After the dust had settled, Sir Jack Cater, the then Chief Secretary, sent me a message, congratulating me on defusing the strike threat and asking if I would consider withdrawing my application for early retirement. He said the government could hardly afford to lose a senior officer like myself.
My reply was that I was in a financial bind. All my three sons wanted to study in North America and, much as I would like to remain in the public service, its salary structure would not enable me to meet the wishes of my sons. Even if I were to be promoted immediately to the rank of Policy Secretary, my salary would still fall far short of financing requirement. Hence I had no alternative except to leave for the richer pastures of the private sector.
There the matter reached a dead end.
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The months of my retirement notice rolled by quickly enough. My involvement with staff unions and reorganising the administrative machinery of the department kept me busy.
Over the same period, I had several sessions with Victor Fung to fill in the details of my terms of engagement with Li & Fung.
By the time autumn came around, it was time for the Postmaster General to take his annual leave. I was slated to take over as Postmaster General, in addition to my duties as Deputy. Before departing, the head of department handed me the keys to the Chubb safe in his office and said: “Since you will be in charge of the department, you might as well look at some of the secret papers in the safe.”
I accepted the keys. But I thought he was referring to papers detailing what everybody had long talked about in the tea houses and coffee shops, that is, of the British GCHQ or Government Communications Headquarters, in cahoots with the Americans, setting up surveillance posts at such places as Cape Collinson and Lei Yue Mun to spy on Chinese telecommunications.
Once I got around to opening the safe, however, I found myself proved entirely wrong. It became apparent that another well-established surveillance operation by the Special Branch was being conducted right under my nose in the General Post Office as well! So much for my blind faith over most of my life in the sanctity of the Royal Mail.
How could I have missed what was going on? It was true that doing my rounds of inspection in the basement I had neglected to go into every office there. I had been more interested in the workings of the modern sorting machinery and how individual postmen would bundle their letters and postal items in accordance with the routes they took on their delivery beats.
And it was in one of those inconspicuous rooms in the basement, during the dead of night, that certain postal officers specially selected by the Special Branch would steam open letters addressed to targeted individuals and photograph their contents, before re-sealing them for normal delivery the following day.
The whole operation revolved around a list of names and addresses drawn up by the Special Branch. For some unclear reason, the list was referred to as “The Q List”. I could not figure out what the cryptic “Q” was supposed to stand for. Presumably it might stand for “Queer” or “Questionable” or “Quisling” or something of that nature.
The list was delivered personally to the Postmaster General from time to time, whereupon he would instruct the specified postal officers pre-selected by the Special Branch to photograph all communications passing through the postal system destined for those particular people or addresses. It required no imagination to conclude that a similar secret list would have been sent to the head of the Hong Kong Telephone Company, for all telephones either in the names of those people or located at those addresses to be bugged as well.
On the face of it, it appeared that the people in the Q List had been selected for either political or criminal reasons, though some element of collecting economic intelligence might be present as well. Most of the names were unknown to me, although a few could be identified as minor personages belonging to the cocktail cult, the odd banker, lawyer, accountant or businessman. Thankfully, no name of any close friend of mine had found its way into the list.
A feature of the list was that where the address happened to be a self-contained dwel