The battle to run Hong Kong

Posted in China | 03-Mar-05 | Author: Qiu Xin| Source: Asia Times

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (R) and Chief Secretary Donald Tsang hold a news conference on direct elections in Hong Kong in this April 26, 2004 file photo.
HONG KONG - It's not too soon to jockey for political position and prepare for Beijing-orchestrated elections for Hong Kong's chief executive.

It is only two years before the election for the third chief executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), but all the likely candidates recommended by the general public are still busy with their duties and downplaying their ambitions. The position of the central government in Beijing in clear: appropriate competition is indispensable to guarantee the competence of the next chief executive (CE), and only the candidate acceptable to the vast majority will be recognized by Beijing. The current CE, Tung Chee-hwa, has fallen into disfavor with Beijing for alleged incompetence and failure to keep in touch with the people.

Neither the Legislative Council nor the CE is chosen by direct universal suffrage, though Beijing says that is the ultimate goal. It says, however, that conditions are not yet right for full democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing, however, is disillusioned with the incumbent and says his successor, chosen by an 800-member election committee, must truly reflect the will of the Hong Kong people. Beijing plays a major role in the selection of that committee.

Contrary to the democratic enthusiasm welcomed in Western communities, whoever opts openly for election in China is often seen as conceited and self-aggrandizing, often a novice in a complex political game - modesty plays better than ambition. At the moment, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang and Financial Secretary Henry Tang are considered the two most promising prospects for the CE election scheduled in 2007, although the two have not yet declared their intentions to run.

In one corner, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, 61, holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. He joined the Hong Kong civil service in January 1967 and has assumed many positions in the administration dealing with local administration, finance, trade and policies relating to the return of Hong Kong to China. In September 1995, he was appointed financial secretary, the first Chinese to hold the position after 150 years of British incumbents. During his six-year tenure, Tsang steered Hong Kong through the Asian financial crisis that swept across the region in 1997 and 1998. In May 2001, he was nominated chief secretary for administration, a post he continues to fill.

In the other corner is Henry Tang Ying-yen, 53, who was a leading industrialist in Hong Kong before he entered the civil service. After graduation from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in arts, he helped his father manage the family business back in Hong Kong in 1976. Between 1995 and 2001, he served as chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries and served as a committee member of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. In July 2002 Tang became secretary for commerce, industry and technology; in 2003 he assumed the post of financial secretary, replacing Antony Leung, who was mired in a tax-dodging scandal.

Both Donald Tsang and Henry Tang have in common educational experience in the United States, unlike incumbent Chief Executive Tung, who was educated in Britain. Ever since Hong Kong returned to China's embrace in 1997, the former British enclave gradually has been distancing itself from London.

Regarding parentage and family background, the two potential candidates are on equal terms. Tsang is Hong Kong-born and -bred, and his native identity may be a rallying point of popularity and help him garner votes. Tang, however, has his roots in Wuxi city of eastern China's Jiangsu province. But his father, Tang Hsiang-chein, who has pumped substantial investments into the developing hinterland after China's economic reform and opening-up started, is now aboard the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and he boasts intimate associations with the Beijing leadership, including former state president Jiang Zemin, also a Jiangsu native.

Recently, the Hong Kong community has been split in support of the two likely candidates. Stanley Ho, chairman of the Real Estate Developers Association (REDA) of Hong Kong, on February 17 openly encouraged Tsang to run for the CE's post. Plus, Hopewell Holdings Ltd chairman Gordon Wu gave high marks to Tsang in a public event but did not comment on Tang's performance, adding that Tsang should be more experienced than Tang.

Earlier, Ho and his favorite candidate, Donald Tsang, had a disagreement on the bidding for the future West Kowloon Cultural District Development. The landmark project will develop the Kowloon waterfront into a cluster of museums, theaters, piazzas, an art-exhibition center and a performance venue, plus vast parklands and a promenade. While the government was planning to put the project out to a single tender, REDA suggested that the project could be auctioned in parts so that more developers could participate in the construction. On behalf of the government, Tsang dug in his heels for a single tender at the very beginning, but he soon changed his mind in return for the political support from REDA chairman Ho. On February 21, Tsang said that the bidding model of the West Kowloon project could be reviewed.

Financial Secretary Henry Tang, on the other side, has his hands full in budgeting for the year to come. Considering the recovery signs of the Hong Kong economy, he is expected to make some policies pleasing to the public. On February 22, Tang noted that a poverty-reduction campaign would start at the earliest possible time, in response to popular demand. Helping the needy will not only echo Beijing's call for "caring about the disadvantaged", but it also will add credits to the financial secretary's popularity. In early January, Hong Kong Liberal Party chairman Tien Pei-chun, a close friend of Tang, rebuked Chief Secretary for Administration Tsang for manipulating the tender of the West Kowloon project, but Tien was suspected later of helping Tang discredit his competitor. At this point, Henry Tang's father, Tang Hsiang-chein, made it clear that Henry should decide on his own whether or not to sign up for the election.

Facing fusillades of questions from the media, the two hopefuls for chief executive have left their options open. "I'm already used to the wide conjecture about my political career in over 10 years, as well as all the joking about my decision to be or not to be a candidate," Donald Tsang replied on February 18. He said that he had no time to ponder future politics beyond his current duties, and said he felt as though he were treading on eggs every day just to meet public requirements. At a New Year's celebration gathering with the press on February 9, Tsang once said, half in jest, that he would retire after his secretaryship expired in 2007.

Henry Tang has given a similar;u nebulous response. "I'll focus on the job at hand. I hope that when I leave the post of financial secretary, I can have general recognition from the people. Should the unemployment rate at that time be lower and the economy be stronger than today, I would say we have realized the goal of a united society and an improved economy."

As regards the election of the next Hong Kong chief executive, Beijing has left some leeway for appropriate competition. Attending a cocktail party hosted on February 22 in celebration of the Chinese New Year, Yang Wenchang, commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong, said the central government would accept whomever most Hong Kong people chose as their next chief executive, no matter whether he or she hailed from the business circle or the civil service. When asked which was better, a business background or a civil-service background, Yang replied, "It's hard to say. Everyone has a different opinion. Some say civil service, and some others prefer business. But I think it depends on the decision of the majority."

Political observers, however, worry that the Hong Kong community could be split up again during the two years' run-up to the election of the chief executive. Three years ago when Tung Chee-hwa ran for re-election and stood as the only candidate for the top job, with the backing of Beijing, Hong Kong society was split - the bigger portion against Tung and the smaller one supporting him. To secure a harmonious and stable Hong Kong, it is clear that the top priority is to single out a competent and popular leader for the territory. Obviously, that concept now has been grasped by the powers that be in Beijing.

Jiang's foe becomes Hu's friend
Donald Tsang recently has been rumored to be Beijing's first choice to succeed Tung Chee-hwa as the chief executive. His emergence didn't come all of a sudden, considering the following chain of events.

Last September, Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president and former party chief, resigned his powerful chairmanship of the Chinese Communist Party Central Military Commission; he will also resign from a lesser post on the Central Military Commission this month. This is widely regarded as another victory for President and party chief Hu Jintao, Jiang's successor, in this round of jockeying for power and influence.

When attending the ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of Macau's handover to communist China, Hu met with Tung Chee-hwa's administration and encouraged the officials to rejuvenate Hong Kong's economy further. Hu shook hands with Financial Secretary Henry Tang, a member of Jiang's clan by some accounts, for four seconds, while he shook hands for six seconds with Donald Tsang - yes, some China watchers apparently keep a stopwatch to keep track of such minutiae. What aroused even more speculation was that Hu even held a talk with Tsang on the sidelines - a mark of favor and interest that was noted.

On February 18, Stanley Ho Hung San (who also is a gambling tycoon), enjoying close ties with Beijing, openly voiced his support for Tsang. "Of course, I want him [Tsang] to become chief executive for two terms, as his [popularity] rating is so high. He should take the job," Ho was quoted as saying.

Not everyone of influence in Beijing favors Tsang; he is anything but the apple of former leader Jiang's eye. During the 1996 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Tsang, then financial secretary of British-ruled Hong Kong, made a very negative impression on Jiang. During an official banquet, Tsang asked his table mate Jiang to inscribe on his table napkin some words for Hong Kongers. Jiang granted the favor, but grudgingly.

In an interval during the APEC conference, Jiang was whispering with Koo Chen-fu, then chairman of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation, the only private organization empowered by the government to handle technical or business matters with mainland China. Their private chat halted abruptly at the approach of the relatively unsophisticated - when it comes to political wheeling and dealing - Tsang.

Tsang's religious beliefs probably will turn out to be the major barrier to his political future, as leaders in Beijing are all atheists - at least in theory. Educated in a Roman Catholic school, Tsang is proud to be a devout Catholic, while Beijing's relations with the Vatican are strained. Besides, Beijing viewed with great suspicion and distrust Joseph Zen, the Roman Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, who frequently challenged China's authority and continued to promote the democracy campaign. Of course, Jiang Zemin was weary of the prospect of dealing with another prospective headache in the person of Tsang.

During Hong Kong's handover from Britain, Beijing opposed Tsang's succession to the post of chief secretary for administration from Anson Chan Fang On-sang. Were it not for Tung Chee-hwa's campaigning for Tsang, for the sake of maintaining Hong Kong's morale, the nomination could never have gained Beijing's approval.

Tsang's pro-United Kingdom stance during the handover in 1997 represents another problem for him today. When participating in the draft of Sino-British Joint Declaration, Tsang allegedly was racking his brain to seek the maximum interests of his former British employers. Because of his distinguished service, Tsang was promoted to secretary for the Treasury in May 1993. Later, when negotiating the financial arrangement in Beijing, he abruptly began to speak English in an arrogant tone, which irritated Chen Zuo'er, currently deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

Just days before the handover of the territory, Prince Charles conferred upon Tsang a knighthood (KBE, Knight of the British Empire) in a high-profile ceremony on June 28, 1997 - this also angered many Beijing officials. They would surely feel perplexed, to say the least, if Donald Tsang were to govern Hong Kong at a later date.

Last year, China hinted that the discussion over Hong Kong's controversial constitutional development with Beijing should be postponed, so that Beijing could pay full attention to Taiwan's presidential election. Tsang, ignoring the suggestion, insisted on going to the capital to bargain with the officials concerned. He was apparently given a cold shoulder there: Zeng Qinghong, Chinese vice president in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, kept him waiting outside his office door, instead sending a far junior official from the Office of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs to deal with Tsang. Some interpreted this event as a farcical development orchestrated by Tsang to intimidate Beijing in order to obtain a favorable decision. It apparently didn't work.

Observers noted that the official Xinhua News Agency republished Deng Xiaoping's speech on Hong Kong originally delivered in 1984, and editorialized in several articles to rebuke the farcical visit of Tsang, who arrived at the wrong time and was left cooling his heels. The press claimed, "The farce will unavoidably be replayed, unless the opposing voice [presumably Tsang's] is overwhelmed completely."

Most important, the People’s Daily published an article saying Beijing was not going to tolerate any "conspiracy" aimed at forcing the central government to allow more democracy in Hong Kong. Although the article did not specifically refer to Tsang, some analysts have linked the article to his futile trip.

However, my enemy's enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. The situation has undergone a U-turn, as Hu Jintao, who seems to favor Tsang, continues to consolidate his power base.

Yang Wengchang, commissioner of China's Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong, when attending the spring cocktail party held by Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, pointed out that the central government will accept any candidate for the chief executive, so long as he or she wins majority support among Hong Kong's people. Yang's remarks were interpreted as Beijing's acquiescence in Donald Tsang's candidacy.

Tsang once asserted that he was content, devoid of political ambition, and planned to retire at the expiration of his service in 2007. Whether he will relinquish this idea and serve Hong Kong longer by running to be the next chief executive remains an intriguing question.