Hong Kong's Putative Chief Executive Faces New Setbacks

Setbacks in billionaire insider Henry Tang’s bid to become chief executive of Hong Kong are revealing yet more evidence of official sleaze and of his unfitness for the position.

It had once been assumed that Tang was almost sure to be chosen on March 25 by the group of special interests that make up the 1,200 member Election Commission and that as in the past the “race” would feature a token alternative establishment candidate, in this case Leung Chung-hing, a property surveyor from a modest local background and member of the territory’s Executive Council.

Tang, the fine wine expert son of a Shanghai textile magnate, had the clear support of most of the current government hierarchy and leading members of the business community represented by chambers of commerce and most of the “rotten borough” business group interests in the Legislative Council.

But Tang’s persona has proved so unappealing and his achievements in office as chief secretary for administration and previously as financial secretary seen as so minimal that opinion survey after opinion survey has shown that most of the public clearly prefers Leung. The latest poll gives Leung 49 percent to Tang’s 26 percent with the remainder undecided or preferring a third candidate, a democrat who stands no chance given the nature of the voting system.

Although Hong Kong’s banking and property oligarchs have done their best to promote Tang’s candidacy, even some business interests are having doubts. They had assumed he would happily carry on government with their interests foremost among his priorities. But many of them are now querying his ability to lead, to make decision given his track record of failure to get results from a bureaucracy that is reluctant to make bold decisions whether or not they make economic sense or tackle serious local problems such as pollution, the income gap or end the inter-ministerial conflicts which delay decision-making.

As a result of persistent poor showings in the polls, the desperate Tang camp has brought in the government, which should be neutral, to smear Leung with an allegation that he did not declare a conflict of interest when he was a member of a 2001 panel making recommendations in respect of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a long stalled mega project over which Tang himself was until recently presiding.

Having selectively leaked allegations the government then refused to make public all the documents relating to the issue as requested by Leung himself, backed by several legislators. Leung said he was totally unaware of any conflict which was said to have arisen because of an indirect link between a Malaysian architect and DTZ, the firm of surveyors created in 2001 with the merger of Leung’s firm with a Singapore one.

Given the extent of conflicts of interest which arise almost daily among the ex-bureaucrats of Hong Kong and their big business employers for the government to come up with such a flimsy attempt to discredit Leung indicated the extent to which government has become politicized with the distinction between political appointees and senior civil servants increasingly blurred.

But sleaze and Tang have long been closely associated. Top of his list of supporters, with whom he was most recently photographed is David Li Kwok-po, the inherited billionaire head of Bank of East Asia whose most notorious achievement is in insider-trading – he was caught by the US Securities & Exchange Commission for leaking information to a friend to enable him to trade on the news of a bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for Dow Jones & Co of which Li was a non-executive director.

He escaped criminal prosecution but had to pay a large sum to settle the matter. Despite this he remains the representative of the banking community in the Legislative Council and close ally of incumbent chief executive Donald Tsang as well as Tang.

Tang was also earlier involved in an attempt to place the blame for a 2003 fiasco known as Hong Kong Harbour Fest on one particular official in order to absolve himself, Tsang and the then financial secretary of their responsibility for the mess. The official, Mike Rowse, was in charge of InvestHK which had, incongruously, been given a vague oversight role in a series of entertainments to be run by the American Chamber of Commerce but which was sponsored with HK$100 million by the government. Having been publicly censored for the fiasco when the Harbour Fest became an expensive flop, Rowse took the government to court to redeem his reputation. He won in a case which revealed a litany of lies and cover-ups by his superiors.

If this is the quality of the man Beijing thinks should run Hong Kong, it may well stir up more antagonism between Hong Kong people and the mainland. Hong Kong masses may not be able to vote, but you can’t fool all of them all of the time, and the polls show it.