LegCo Panel on Public Service
Meeting on 28 April 1997
Bilingual Language Policy in the Civil Service and
Chinese Language Requirement in Public-funded Organisations


This paper sets out the Government’s policy to develop a bilingual civil service and briefs Members on the Chinese language requirement for appointments, provision of Chinese language training and promotion of wider use of Chinese in the civil service. The paper also touches on the Chinese language requirement laid down by some public-funded organisations for their employees.

Bilingual Language Policy in Civil Service

2. The Government’s long-term policy objective is to develop a civil service which is biliterate (reads and writes Chinese and English) and trilingual (speaks Cantonese, English and Putonghua). English has all along been the major language used in official business. As the Government becomes more open, the chance for civil servants to have direct communication with the public and various tiers of councils has increased, resulting in the growing expectation of the community for bilingual civil servants and the inevitable increase in the use of Chinese. Hence, the enhancement of Chinese language skills in the civil service has become an important objective.

3. Meanwhile, the Government has not ignored the importance of English. Proficiency in English, a world language, is a factor contributing to Hong Kong’s success. The great leap in economy over the last few decades indeed attributes partly to her edge in the standard of English. Therefore, the maintenance of a high English standard in the civil service is equally important if we are to cope effectively with the challenges of the 21st century.

4. At the same time when the bilingual policy in the civil service lays emphasis on greater use of Chinese, it also seeks to maintain the civil servants’ English standard. In other words, we hope that civil servants in general can enhance step by step their ability to use Chinese while keeping a certain standard in English, so that they may operate efficiently in both languages in fulfilment of the objective of attaining a biliterate civil service.

Strategy of Developing a Bilingual Civil Service

5. In implementing the bilingual policy in the civil service, our prevailing challenges are to enhance civil servants’ skills in using Chinese and to create an environment conducive to wider use of Chinese in the day-to-day work. The strategy adopted is to systematically raise the Chinese standard in the civil service and provide more opportunities for the use of Chinese by taking various proactive measures, including the introduction of a Chinese language requirement for recruitments, provision of appropriate in-service training and promotion of wider use of Chinese in the day-to-day operation.

6. A biliterate civil service cannot be attained overnight. As language proficiency can only be developed through training and daily usage while the day-to-day language culture in the civil service can only be changed gradually, we have to achieve our policy objective step by step. At the same time, the promotion of wider use of Chinese varies with departments since their situation, daily operation and nature of service are different. Furthermore, the measures to step up the use of Chinese must be practical with the specific arrangements decided by individual departments, taking into consideration their own needs and situation. Efforts have also to be made to gain the support and co-operation of the serving officers. Thus, setting a rigid timetable or imposing a language requirement not compatible with the actual operation of the departments might hinder rather than accelerate the progress.

Chinese Language Requirement for Appointment of Civil Servants


7. One of the most effective ways to attain a bilingual civil service is to introduce a language requirement for appointment to ensure that new recruits possess language proficiency in both English and Chinese. In this connection, an appointment requirement has been introduced since 1 August 1995 requiring all local recruits appointed on permanent and pensionable terms (P&P terms) to be proficient in both Chinese and English. The general standard is set at a pass in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination but individual departments and grades may, in consultation with Civil Service Branch, lay down different levels of proficiency in both languages to suit the actual situation and job requirements.

8. At present, members of most civil service grades are appointed on local P&P terms. Only individual grades which experience recruitment difficulties or have special operational needs are allowed to recruit members on local agreement terms. In recruitment, it is only when no suitable local candidate is available that overseas recruitment is considered, in which case, the candidate will be appointed on overseas agreement terms. However, posts warranting overseas recruitment are extremely few nowadays and are limited to certain professional grades for which training is not available in Hong Kong. As an appointment on agreement terms is an employment with fixed duration, no mandatory Chinese language requirement generally has been introduced, but individual grades may set appropriate language requirement according to needs if the nature of the job so requires during the tour of service.

Renewal of Agreement and Transfer to Local Agreement Terms

9. At present, the same mechanism applies when applications by local agreement officers for renewal of agreement and applications for transfer to local agreement terms by overseas agreement officers who are Hong Kong permanent residents are considered. The factors considered include service need, performance and conduct, and physical fitness of the applicants. Under the existing policy, heads of departments/grades may, based on the following factors, decide whether a Chinese language requirement should be included when considering the renewal of agreement on local terms in respect of local officers or overseas officers applying for transfer to local agreement terms:-

  1. whether Chinese language proficiency is required for the job which the officer will be expected to perform during the course of his next agreement; and
  2. if the job does call for the use of Chinese, heads of departments/grades should consider the level and nature of Chinese language proficiency required, the translation/interpretation service available in the department during the course of agreement and the ability of the officer concerned to attain the required standard of proficiency within a reasonable period.

10. In general, there is no need for the department to specify the Chinese language requirement in considering an application for renewal of agreement if the head of department/grade is of the opinion that the job which the applicant is expected to perform during the course of his next agreement does not require the use of Chinese, or that even if such a need exists, the department, having considered the factors in above para (b), can still accommodate the applicant without affecting its efficient and effective operation.

Transfer from Agreement Terms to P&P Terms

11. The arrangement for transfer of overseas agreement officers to overseas P&P terms was abolished in June 1992. The arrangement for the transfer of local agreement officers to local P&P terms was suspended on 31 October 1995, to facilitate the review of the transfer arrangement and criteria. In the past, consideration of local officers’ applications for transfer to local P&P terms was generally based on the availability of permanent posts and the applicants’ performance and conduct. Chinese language requirement was not explicitly specified.

12. Given the Government’s long-term policy objective of developing a biliterate civil service, the growing expectation of the community for bilingual civil servants and the nature of P&P terms which represent a long-term employment commitment, we proposed to the staff side a package of rationalised transfer criteria in February 1997. We proposed, inter alia, that a Chinese language requirement be laid down by heads of departments/grades for officers applying for transfer to P&P terms, except where Chinese proficiency has been confirmed to be dispensable for the efficient and effective operation of the grade, even after consideration of the long-term operational needs. As for the specific level of language proficiency, it should be set with reference to the actual situation and operational needs of the department/grade. Notwithstanding this, an officer might be exempted from the requirement if, throughout his service from the transfer to P&P terms to the normal retirement age, he will absolutely not be required to possess the Chinese language proficiency needed for the efficient and effective performance of duties, or if he is required to fill permanently a specialised professional or technical post (which does not call for the use of Chinese). We proposed that the criteria be applicable to local agreement officers who had not applied for transfer to P&P terms before 31 October 1995, as well as former overseas agreement officers transferred to local agreement terms on or after 31 October 1995. The proposals were explained to Members at the Panel meeting on 24 February 1997.

13. We have to point out here that the Chinese language requirement for transfer to P&P terms is aimed at meeting the long-term needs of the Government and has taken note of the existing Chinese language requirement applicable to new recruits appointed on local P&P terms. We also proposed that, officers not granted transfer to P&P terms because of failure to meet the Chinese language requirement may apply for renewal of agreement. If they fulfil the criteria for renewal of agreement, they can still remain in service on agreement terms.

Chinese Language Training

14. Training is very essential in raising the standard of Chinese of civil servants. The planning for and co-ordination of training programmes, however, must take into account the priorities and operational needs. At present, the resources of the Civil Service Training and Development Institute (CSTDI) are mainly allocated to Chinese language and Putonghua courses to meet on-the-job needs of civil servants, as well as basic training for expatriate officers who do not know Chinese.

15. As for Chinese writing, CSTDI is providing modules of courses on different topics for serving officers, ranging from basic Chinese writing to official writing skills in specific areas. These courses have been favourably received. In 1996/97, CSTDI organised Chinese official writing courses for nearly 10 000 serving officers and issued more than 10 000 sets of self-learning packages to civil servants. In addition, CSTDI has recommended to various departments that Chinese official writing courses be incorporated into their induction training programmes. Support has been given to training programmes by some heads of departments/grades, who decide their staff’s priority for attendance according to operational needs and encourage serving officers to join the training courses.

16. As for Putonghua, courses for departments have been offered by CSTDI since 1982. In 1996/97, CSTDI provided Putonghua courses for some 7 000 officers and issued more than 14 000 sets of self-learning kits.

17. For expatriate officers with no knowledge of the Chinese language, basic Chinese language training is offered by CSTDI, which is regularly organising elementary, intermediate and advanced level courses in Cantonese, basic Putonghua courses and elementary Chinese characters courses. Heads of departments also encourage their expatriate officers to receive Cantonese training to meet their service needs.

Promoting the Use of Chinese

18. In promoting the use of Chinese, the Official Languages Agency has stressed the need to create a working environment conducive to the wider use of Chinese, such as by providing various forms of support and assistance, which specifically include: drawing up guidelines for departments on ways to promote wider use of Chinese, especially in identifying areas of work in which Chinese can be used and keeping close contact with departments to monitor their progress in the use of Chinese; producing a series of booklets on formats, sample models and points to note in Chinese official writing; establishing a telephone enquiry service to help departments with difficulties in using Chinese; and producing and revising a series of English-Chinese glossaries of terms commonly used in government departments. The Commissioner for Official Languages has personally written to all directorate officers, seeking their support in promoting wider use of Chinese. She has also set a very good example by drafting documents and communicating with her staff in Chinese whenever appropriate, hoping to give new impetus to wider use of Chinese within the department.

Officers without Proficiency in the Chinese Language

19. At present, only a small proportion of civil servants have no proficiency in the Chinese language. The number of expatriate officers (assuming that they do not know Chinese) is only less than 1 400, accounting for around 0.8% of the entire civil service. These officers are working in various professional grades. As newly recruited officers on permanent establishment must be bilingual and officers recruited overseas are restricted to a few specialised posts, the proportion of civil servants with no knowledge of Chinese would be on the decrease. The percentage of expatriate officers may be higher in certain grades but as far as professional grades are concerned, English will still be the main language used in the foreseeable future. It is anticipated that even with the gradual increase in the use of Chinese, the relevant departments, through careful staff planning and deployment, would still be in a position to allow the officers concerned to perform their duties efficiently and effectively without the need for additional resources to provide translation service. Though the promotion of use of Chinese may be subject to certain restrictions in those areas of work in which the officers concerned are directly involved, there is still much room for such promotion, given the small proportion of these officers in the civil service.

Chinese Language Requirement of Public-funded Organisations

20. The public-funded organisations listed in the Appendix are independent statutory organisations with a certain degree of administrative and financial autonomy. In staff appointment, they enjoy a high degree of autonomy in formulating their appointment policies. Individual organisations determine the pay and conditions of service for their staff, subject to the principle that the packages should not be more favourable than those for civil servants in a similar rank and grade. The criteria for appointments and the choice of candidates are also a matter for the organisations. The Government will not normally intervene unless the specific appointment policies and arrangements of the organisations are considered to have significant implications on civil service appointments, or in the cases of specific appointments where Governor’s prior approval is a statutory requirement. As these organisations are engaged in different service areas, it is necessary to provide them with a certain degree of autonomy so that they may recruit their staff according to their own needs, thereby enhancing their overall efficiency.

21. Regarding the use of Chinese, we understand that these organisations are all aware of the Government’s bilingual policy and have implemented measures appropriate to their situation by making reference to the policy. A progress description of the use of Chinese of individual organisations is given in the Appendix.


22. In developing a biliterate civil service, our strategy must be a gradual one and in line with the actual situation. However, we believe that by recruiting biliterate civil servants, providing training to serving officers and further promoting the use of Chinese within the Government, we will eventually create a civil service which can operate effectively in both Chinese and English.

Civil Service Branch
21 April 1997


Chinese Language Requirement of Public-Funded Organisations for Employees


Chinese Language Requirement

Hospital Authority

Measures adopted to promote the use of Chinese are broadly similar to those of the Government with the Chinese language requirement laid down according to the operational needs of individual posts. However, as far as professional and specialised posts are concerned, emphasis is still placed on professional knowledge and skills. A review of the Chinese language levels required for individual grades is under way.

Urban Council, Regional Council and

Hong Kong Housing Authority

In recruiting contract staff (not civil servants in the Urban Services Department, Regional Services Department and Housing Department), Chinese language requirement will be introduced in line with the requirements of the corresponding civil service grades.

Hong Kong Monetary Authority

It broadly follows the Chinese language requirement for civil servants, with the specific levels adjusted according to the operational needs of individual posts. When necessary, new recruits have to pass a language profile test.

Vocational Training Council

It follows the Chinese language requirement for civil servants when recruiting general staff. When recruiting teachers, the language of instruction and operational needs will be considered. For disciplines with no suitable local candidates, overseas teachers will be recruited.

Legislative Council Secretariat, Office of

the Ombudsman, Equal Opportunities Commission and Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data

They all follow the policy applicable to civil servants by introducing appropriate Chinese language requirement according to operational needs.

Civil Service Branch
21 April 1997

Last Updated on 21 August 1998