Hong Kong's lackluster Chief Exec Crop

A recent visit by Wang Guangya, the head of Beijing's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, has focused attention on the crucial issue of who will be chosen the territory's chief executive when Sir Donald Tsang's term ends next year. Reading between the lines of Wang's platitudes on the need for Hong Kong people to understand the mother country and its socialist principles, observers saw signs that leadership is the last thing Beijing is looking for in its choice of chief executive. Indeed Wang showed little sign of wanting to engage with anyone outside the elite circle of top bureaucrats, property tycoons and Communist party loyalists.

In theory the chief executive is chosen by the people of Hong Kong. In practice it is chosen by Beijing operating through a 800 member election committee whose majority will vote as indicated. As of now Beijing appears not to have come to a decision and possibly the maneuvering going on prior to next year's party congress will affect the outcome for Hong Kong -- not that it is high on the priority list. Meanwhile however the tightening of media and other controls throughout Chin and the rising fears among officials of outbursts of civil unrest means that it is more likely than not that Beijing will opt for what they see as the safest (for them) options.

Of course Hong Kong history has shown that the apparently safe option can turn out very differently. The first “safe” choice Tung Chee-hwa had to be replaced. His “safe” successor, a lifelong bureaucrat, has become an almost invisible leader of a lame-duck government, very low in public esteem and seemingly incapable of making decisions.

As far as the public is aware there are four candidates: Henry Tang, currently the Chief Secretary for Administration, the second ranked person in the government; Leung Chung-ying, convenor of the non-official members of the Executive Council; Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a former speaker of the Legislative Council and member of China's National People's Congress; and Regina Ip, a former civil servant and minister who re-invented herself as an elected politician after being sacked from her ministerial job in 2003.

Just possibly Beijing has another name up its sleeve. The 1997 choice of Tung, a second generation Shanghainese shipping tycoon better known outside than in Hong Kong came as a surprise. But a repeat seems unlikely. So what are the relative qualifications of these four?

The least likely choice may now have become the front runner because she is deemed inoffensive and pliable. That is Rita Fan. Although now 65 years old, she leads in some opinion polls, mainly because her career has been one of ingratiating herself with superiors while not having any significant decision-making positions. She was particularly prominent in her role as speaker of the Legislative Council, a job which requires a degree of tact but meant she could appear relatively neutral on policy issues. In fact her career path has been rather different. Her father was a prominent Shanghai businessman who fled to Hong Kong and became the major shareholder in Dah Sing Bank. She was just a middle rank administrator in the education sector but through family connections became an acolyte of Sir S.Y. Chung, a leading accomplice of the British rulers in the 1980s.

She was reported by Chung to have wept on the news that the British would definitely leave in 1997 but she managed a very quick change of clothes and was soon one of Beijing's favorites, joining all kinds of “patriotic” committees. Ousted from the Executive Council by Governor Patten, she returned to prominence as a pro-Beijing legislator after the handover. She has chaired committees but has never run a department or a business. No does she appear to have views on crucial issues such as housing, environment or other policies which are high on the list of popular concerns. Her advantage for Beijing is not only subservience but also the fact that given her age she would be only a one-term chief executive, giving Beijing more time to groom a successor. It may also help that her family was from Shanghai, where she was born. Not being Cantonese is probably a plus given Beijing's suspicions of Hong Kong's sense of separate, Cantonese identity.

That same Shanghai background is a powerful factor in support for Henry Tang Ying-yen, 58, who was clearly the front runner until a series of government bungles cast doubt on his administrative ability. Not that he had previously shown much sign of such talent, being better known for a disarming smile and lack of record of doing anything very much to earn applause or criticism. He is the billionaire son of a Shanghainese textile magnate. Like several such leaders of local industry in the 1960s and 1970s, the family shifted to the less onerous business of property ownership while continuing to make huge sums from selling textile quotas. (In the days of the Multifibre Agreement, export quotas, which properly belonged to the textile and garment industry as a whole, were handed out on a sleazy “past performance” basis which enabled the likes of Tang to make money by selling quota to the companies that did the real work.) Tang is a poor public speaker and seems not to have much grasp of the issues facing Hong Kong's middle and lower income earners while heaping praise on fellow property tycoons. However, he will surely do what he is told by Beijing and not attempt to build a local popular power base which could oppose Beijing. The princelings of Beijing are at home with the Hong Kong princelings.

By rights of record of service to the party, the prize should probably go to Leung Chung-ying, 56, who has long been assumed to be a quiet party member despite a very successful career as a surveyor, often acting for major property interests. Indeed on both these counts he is regarded with suspicion in some quarters, while others see him as too ambitious. He also finds it harder than others to gain public attention. His position as convenor of unofficial members of executive council members is low-key and also makes it difficult for him to espouse alternative policies. However his speeches have shown a much greater awareness of grass roots issues, particularly the huge and growing income and wealth gaps, than other candidates do. He is a self-made man from a modest background with no prior elite connections and is not associated with a bureaucracy that was once hailed as a key to Hong Kong's success but is often now seen as arrogant, spoiled and indecisive.

The fourth candidate, Regina Ip Lau Yuk-see, 60, was a product of that bureaucracy and fell from grace thanks to an overdose of that arrogance. Promoted to Secretary for Security by Tung Chee-hwa on account of her good relations with mainland officials, she was behind the 2002 attempt to get Hong Kong to swallow a broadly-framed law relating to sedition, subversion and treason. Some such legislation is required by the Basic Law governing Hong Kong but crass drafting and her own thuggish performance forced Tung to sack her.

Since then, Ip has changed her hairstyle and image and, after studying for an MA in the United States, successfully reinvented herself as an elected democratic politician. She speaks out and has created what passes for a think tank – the Savantas Policy Institute. Many doubt her sincerity and see her as a Beijing wolf in sheep's clothing. She espouses a bigger role for government in developing favored industries but has failed to make significant proposals on land, housing and other pressing issues. But she is certainly more articulate and capable than Tang or Fan and better known to the public than Leung.

In the end male- dominated Beijing may shy away from appointing a woman. In which case the money will be on a rich Shanghainese nobody rather than an intelligent Cantonese upstart. That is a grim prospect for a Hong Kong badly in need of leadership.