And now for 2017


In all the excitement of the last week, it is easy to forget that as late as mid-February the Liaison Office was still working flat out to secure the election of Henry Tang as Chief Executive.

And that is not so surprising: after all he had been Beijing's choice for more than 10 years. The links between Henry's father and then President Jiang Zemin were and are well known. He had been groomed right from the beginning of the accountability system in 2002 with successive appointments as Secretary for Commerce and Industry, Financial Secretary and Chief Secretary.

Advancement to the top post was seen as natural progression. Well known and presumably acceptable to Hong Kong people, welcomed by the local business elite as one of them, still well connected in Beijing, what could possibly go wrong?

We now know the answer to that question and it has important ramifications for all parties as they look ahead – as some undoubtedly already are – to the next election in 2017.

What went wrong was that Mr Tang turned out not to be acceptable to Hong Kong people after all. Never mind that this was a small circle election, to govern with authority the Chief Executive would need at least a plausible level of public support and as poll after poll made clear this was simply not forthcoming.

Such a turn of events clearly came as a shock to some people, yet closer examination shows the signs were all there. Right back in 1991 when he first joined LegCo, Mr Tang's political career got off to a dodgy start when he provided misleading information about his academic qualifications. Stories about his love life, including fathering of a child by another woman, circulated widely in political circles and among the media. Questionable actions during the HarbourFest saga of 2003 and 2004 followed.

To the discerning observer it was only a matter of time before the volcano would erupt and the last straw turned out to be not just the existence of the large illegal basement under Mr Tang's home, but the woeful inadequacy of his reaction to the revelation under pressure.

After two weeks of dithering, Beijing realised that Plan A was simply not sustainable and fell back on Plan B, hence the last minute swing of their support to C Y Leung.

Some members of the local business elite reacted with fury as their well laid scheme collapsed and launched a vicious assault on the credibility of Mr Leung who up to that point had been riding high in the polls with close to 50% support. A few clearly hoped to prevent a result on the first round and postpone a decision until May when a compromise candidate – perhaps Joseph Yam – could emerge.

But the Central Government dug in its heels because it saw that no good could emerge from further delay.

While Mr Leung's opponents eventually managed to drag him down to about 35% in the polls, it was too late and a wasted effort. They would have done better to save their energy for learning to cope with the forthcoming Leung administration.

What are the lessons everyone needs to learn before the circus comes to town again in five years time? Good connections are still important of course, administrative experience is always useful, public support a big plus, intelligence and being articulate are both good qualities to have etc.

But the most important qualities of all are the integrity and character of the candidate. The election process is going to probe every corner of his life and if there is anything there to find our free press is going to find it.

In addition, less scrupulous rivals, or more likely, as this time round, agents acting on their behalf some of whom were paid for the purpose, are going to invent scandals and throw them forcefully at the candidate to bring him down. Only the strongest will survive such a process.

Both Beijing and the local business elite need to bear these points in mind in planning for the 2017 CE election.

No doubt Beijing's Plan A will be for Mr Leung to have a successful first stint and earn re-election. But bearing in mind the events of 2012 they will certainly want to have a back-up Plan B as well.

The business elite will need to be very careful indeed in selecting someone who can compete plausibly in direct elections.

In a way the challenge for the pan democrats will be even tougher. They will need to find from among their ranks – or not too far from them – a candidate who ticks as many as possible of the above boxes and is also acceptable to Beijing. The Hong Kong electorate is far too sophisticated to vote for someone they know stands no chance of being appointed.

How to know who can cross that bridge when the time comes? Perhaps possession of a Home Return Permit should be one of the criteria? After all, if you can't travel to Beijing to be sworn in if you win, what is the point of running.

Administrative experience, courage under fire, possession of a Home Return Permit. Makes you think doesn't it. From now on I'm keeping mine securely under lock and key.


 
Mike Rowse
email: mike@rowse.com.hk