Is Beijing in Donald Tsang’s Future?

Days before he even begins his first –and last – full five-year term, there is increasing speculation that Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang will be rewarded for his loyal service to China with a senior state position, such as foreign or trade minister, in Beijing once he finishes his Hong Kong term.

Both of those positions seem a bit farfetched. In any case, there would doubtless be a political price to be paid by Tsang for the journey towards the pinnacle of state – but not party – power. But as a follower more than a leader throughout his career, he has always been prepared to do the bidding of the political elite, whether the British colonial administration, which made him the first local financial secretary and subsequently awarded him a knighthood, or the central government, which saw him as an obedient, competent servant when it needed to replace the amiable but incompetent Tung Chee-hwa. While Tsang even wears Roman Catholicism on his sleeve, he doesn’t do it to the extent of contradicting the fiercely anti-papal atheists in Zhongnanhai.

There are plenty of people in Beijing who have no desire to see Tsang be anything more than their man in Hong Kong. The central government and foreign and trade ministries can now call on a large number of people with a better education, more familiarity with international issues, greater command of language and more appealing public persona than Tsang. By the end of his term as chief executive, Tsang would be 68, a fairly advanced age in a Beijing lineup that is losing its geriatric characteristics.

However, there seems to be a belief in some quarters in Beijing that elevating Tsang would go down well with Hong Kong’s citizens and help strengthen the territory’s often tenuous links with the motherland. Indeed, Beijing is thought to have thrown its weight behind a Hong Kong rather than mainland candidate to head the World Health Organization partly to bolster Hong Kong’s self-esteem – and underscore reliance on mainland diplomatic strength.

That may not have worked given that the candidate, Margaret Chan, was not very highly regarded locally having been forced to resign from her Hong Kong post because of failure to deal promptly with the SARS epidemic. Nonetheless, the notion may still linger that Hong Kong would be flattered by the elevation of one of its own.

However, it is at least as likely that Hong Kong’s citizens, already suspicious of officials who hew rather to close to the Beijing line, would view the possibility of Tsang moving to Beijing with distaste. He is supposed to fight for Hong Kong’s interests when they clash with Beijing, not be a Beijing mouthpiece.

It may all be academic anyway. There is no guarantee that Tsang will last the full five years. By 2012 he may feel too old and exhausted to do more than enjoy a relaxed life attending occasional meetings of mainland rubber-stamp advisory bodies and overseeing his fish collection. But given his lack of a family business to attend to, or of a recreational passion such as golf, his love of power and the limelight could drive him to end his career sitting at the right hand of the godhead in Beijing, not the one in Rome.