Without such legislation, the GRS currently conducts archival work according to internal guidelines. After departments transfer their documents to the GRS, staff must decide whether the records are of potential archival value or not. The GRS is also tasked with formulating records management policy and reviewing record management practices in various departments, and drawing up records retention and disposal schedules.
However, the GRS has less authority than it sounds. Although departments and bureaus must get prior approval from the GRS director before destroying documents deemed to have no historical value, they also get to decide whether to transfer the records to the GRS in the first place.
In 2014, when Hong Kong experienced the Umbrella Movement and controversies such as the delay and soaring budget costs of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, the offices of the Chief Executive, Chief Secretary and the Financial Secretary transferred a total of 130 records to the GRS. This accounted for just 0.2 per cent of the records transferred from all government departments that year.
The volume of records destroyed is another cause for concern. GRS statistics show that an average of 58,643 linear metres (LM) of paper records were destroyed over the past five years. But in 2014 alone, 89,277 LM of records were destroyed, an unusually high number. Chu says it is impossible that so many records could have been properly screened in such a short time.
For him, a big part of the problem is a lack of professionalism. When Chu worked in the GRS, he received on-the-job and overseas professional archival training. He says officers in his time were encouraged to apply for recognition by the US Academy of Certified Archivists. But he says the GRS directors after his retirement in 2007 have not received comparable formal training in archival management or ethical codes. Instead of being specialists, his successors have been executive officers (EO) of the general grade.
“If the boss wants to destroy some records, a professional would bargain with him. But an EO won’t do that because they don’t have the knowledge and the vision. They don’t know what’s good or not. They always agree with their boss,” says Chu.
Stacey Belcher Lee, director of the University Archives of the University of Hong Kong, is a professional archivist and a member of the Archives Action Group. She says many Hong Kong people are not familiar with the idea of proper records management and that makes them hesitant to give archivists the authority to do their jobs properly. Lee says there is a mistaken belief that archivists want to save everything, when in fact appraisal is an important part of their work.
“They give the title archivist to people who are not professional to do the work. They have not caught up with the fact that somewhere along the line in the 20th century professionalisation and specialisation became the new world.”
Professional archivists strictly follow five standards in assessing records for retention – their legal, evidential, historical, intrinsic and emotional value. When it comes to the storm over HKU’s failure to appoint former law dean Johannes Chan as a pro- vice-chancellor, Lee says that regardless of the sensitivity of the episode, records were kept according to their compliance with archival standards and their authenticity.
Yet some records of great historical importance appear to have either vanished or be hidden. Veteran journalist Connie Lo Yan-wai encountered many difficulties making her documentary film about the leftist riots of 1967, Vanished Archives. The only visual record of the eight-month-long disturbances that could be found in the Public Records Office is a 21-second-long film which does not show any of the chaos of the time. Lo says a lot of information relating to the 1967 riots are missing although she could find many details of an earlier riot in 1956 and other events.
The film, which took four years to make, is filled with images of archival material obtained from other sources and interviews with people who experienced the events. She stresses the importance of verifying what the interviewees say and archives are essential to the process. Without any official government records, Lo had to resort to newspaper clippings and declassified documents from the National Archives in London, to piece together the events referred to by the protagonists.