Hong Kong's Lackluster Leadership Race

Two senior Hong Kong Executive Council members, Henry Tang and C Y Leung, have resigned their posts to flag their 'intention to stand' for chief executive, the city’s top job. They look likely to be joined by Regina Ip, former secretary for security and zealous champion of the fatally flawed Article 23 Security Bill, now leader of the New People's Party and a legislative council member as well.

None of the contenders have officially filed papers for the Chief Executive post. Their candidacy depends on securing sufficient support from an Electoral College of 1,200 whose identity is yet to be disclosed. Beijing has the final say on that.

This is the first time since the 1997 handover that more than one comrade has shuffled forward to be in the lineup. That is a novel but not alarming situation for the bosses in Beijing. It is futile for anyone without the Communist Party's blessing to even try.

Beijing's delay in giving 'the sign' to the hopefuls, the 1,200 Election Committee crowd and HK compatriots, has made this a circus of confused horses. The ringmaster is missing. Why? Here is a look at the three.

Henry Tang’s Marital Problems

Given Hong Kong's nosy and intrusive press, insinuations of Tang's affair with a senior aide and other ladies surfaced. There were rumors of a child out of wedlock. He was advised by his PR minders to call a press conference with his wife by his side. The dutiful wife smiled bravely. Tang was contrite.

Millionaires in Hong Kong have never been starved of female company. The PR exercise came across as unnecessary, trivial and distracting. The important question is whether Tang is the right person for the job.

The attempt at public confession has only put Tang under a stubborn cloud of doubt as he dodges reporters' questions of a child by another woman. Does this say anything about Henry Tang's suitability for Chief Executive? Is it relevant at all?

Tang has distinguished himself in 10 years of public service by being remembered for nothing of any significance besides eliminating the tax on wine. In one sense that gives comfort to Beijing. He will not initiate or champion matters of public policy on his own. He will do as he is told.

Despite that Beijing may yet look beyond him -- if only to have a squeaky-clean chief executive untainted by extramarital affairs and hounded by a paparazzi press which refuses to let go.

Given a choice, the property tycoons to whom Beijing defers would like Tang to be the next chief executive. No less than Li Ka-shing has already endorsed him publicly.

CY Leung’s Money Problems

CY Leung’s candidacy has been hit by the fact he faces a paper loss of nearly HK$300 million on his shares in listed DTZ Holdings Plc. He injected his real estate consultancy CY Leung & Co into the larger London-listed DTZ in 1999, following that with more investment in DTZ stock in 2006 and 2009, to become one of its four largest shareholders - which got him a seat on the parent board and chairmanship of DTZ Asia-Pacific.

His shareholding was worth HK$290 million in 2007. DTZ shares have plunged from their 2006 peak of 835 pence to 3 pence recently. Its latest financial position shows liabilities of HK$783 million with an alarming HK$1.1 billion in negative tangible asset value and outstanding short and long-term bank debt of more than HK$1.3 billion. DTZ's weighting in US real estate and aggressive debt-financed acquisitions of European companies has left it badly exposed in the global downturn.

In a city which prides itself on tycoons who ride business cycles with sang-froid, this misadventure comes at the worst possible time. When asked about the DTZ, Leung repeated the investment caveat to reporters that shares go up and come down. He assured them he is not in financial trouble.

Hong Kong is looking for competent leadership to steer it through looming global recession and policy muddles in public housing, education, inflation, unemployment and a destabilizing wealth gap. Is he a safe pair of hands? This twist of the DTZ may lose Leung points with both Beijing and the property tycoons stuffed into the Election Committee.

Regina Ip’s Security Problems

No one can doubt Regina Ip's doughty loyalty as Secretary for Security under Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's first chief executive. She threatened, brow-beat and derided anyone who dared point out the many flaws of the hastily drafted Article 23 Security Bill. She tried to bulldoze the measure through despite representations from civic society, professional bodies, media associations, journalists, lawyers and chambers of commerce.

Hong Kong's normally staid citizenry poured out of their homes on a hot July afternoon in 2003 to flood the streets from Victoria Park to the Government Offices in Central for six hours of massive, peaceful and orderly protest against the threat to their freedoms of press, assembly and right to protest.

Hong Kong has never before or since witnessed such a powerful, disciplined display of public anger.

The shock to Beijing eventually played a role in costing Tung Chee-hwa his job. Ip, her credibility in tatters, resigned to go on a study sabbatical to the US. The bill itself was abandoned at speed. None of the establishment figures or the pro-Beijing legislators primed to pass it rushed to her defense.

Since that singular lesson not to underestimate the resolve of Hong Kong residents, Beijing has been careful to gauge the public mood. It has opted for a softer touch rather than ramming through ideological agendas. That may explain the current 'wait-and-see' on the CE candidates.

Beijing continues its steady, low-key placement of loyalists in the civil service and academic institutions. 'Golden Bauhinia' medals (for distinguished public service) are pinned annually on obscure folk from previously 'underground fronts' whom most Hong Kong residents have never heard of, attracting as much derision locally as the Confucian Prize introduced to rival the Nobel Prize.

Regina Ip is reinventing herself as a people's champion. She chairs the Savantas Institute which studies policy issues on democratic development and heads the New People's Party which garnered four seats in the recent District Council elections at a time when the Pan-Democrat camp was being drubbed.

She stoked the anxiety of Hong Kong residents about a flood of immigrants leaving poorly paid domestic employment to take their jobs after a 25-year Filipina domestic sought a court ruling on right of abode. Ip has recently given condescending advice to the Democratic camp not to stand up for moral causes like right of abode for maids and anti-racist legislation.

Ip's opportunistic talent was in full display when she took off to lobby the National People's Congress in Beijing to deny right of abode to domestic helpers even before the Hong Kong courts could hear the test case.

As a former principal official of the Hong Kong government and a current legislator, Ip is pledged to uphold the rule of law and Hong Kong's unique Special Administrative Region status. She undermines both in her unseemly haste to parade her 'loyalty' before Beijing. She waits to be rewarded.

There have been trial balloons floated by Beijing compatriots in Hong Kong for the re-introduction of the reviled security bill. That may well be a hidden condition for the appointment of the next chief executive. Ip is eminently qualified for a repeat performance, if called upon. The masters in Beijing should be wary.

Important job not for the most competent

The lack of universal suffrage in choosing a leader on merit leaves the SAR poorly prepared to face the economic tsunami ahead. In boom times that may not matter but Hong Kong has already lost 14 years through limp leadership on fundamental issues. It cannot waste another five.

Of the three hopefuls, CY Leung seems at least to have considered views on overdue policy matters. He is known to be action-oriented. The worst possible outcome in the current scenario is for Ip to slide in by default.