Posted:  April. 25, 2012

 

The speculation that preceded his March 25th selection as Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive has continued unabated ever since.  Winning candidate Leung Chun-ying remains as much a man of mystery one month later as he was during the campaign beforehand when everyone was gradually coming to realize that he rather than the business community’s favorite Henry Tang would emerge victorious.  Although CY Leung had enjoyed consistently higher public approval ratings than Tang since last October, the focus now is on CY’s low ratings relative to predecessors Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang just after their selection.

Two questions dominate the speculation:  is CY a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and whether he is or not, how can he govern when so many members of the Election Committee’s power elite refused to endorse him even after Beijing gave the signal? (CY, 689 votes; Tang, 285)   It’s way too early to declare agreement on either question.  But the preliminary emerging view is that CY will behave like a party member even if he isn’t; and those in the establishment who opposed his candidacy will not be rallying to his side any time soon.  Neither will most democrats.

HE SAYS HE IS NOT …

         Probably the time has come for Hong Kong’s unacknowledged communist party branch to come out from its underground hiding place.  At least that would call a halt to the endless inconclusive speculation and imaginings about who is and is not a member and what their hidden agendas might be.  It would also focus public attention where it surely belongs by allowing the community to consider party members for what they actually are rather than only what they claim to be.

Long ago in the 1950s, when colonial Hong Kong was learning to live with its giant new communist neighbor and anti-communist refugees were flooding in, the British and Chinese governments worked out ways of mutual co-existence.  Official Chinese interests would be represented by the local branch of the New China News Agency.  But the news agency was also allowed to serve as cover for the underground and unacknowledged local CCP organization, known internally as the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee.  The committee would keep out of sight and pro-Beijing patriots, as they were known until the 1980s, would also keep to themselves.  That included also the leaders and affiliated members of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions after a few tumultous years.  Official colonial and mainstream anti-communist Hong Kong ignored them and they returned the favor.

It was as though the lines of Cold War demarcation between communists and anti-communists had not stopped at the Hong Kong-China border but migrated inward to take up positions within the community itself.  There invisible barriers formed around the few China-owned companies, union halls, bookstores, newspapers, theaters, and the neighborhoods where their employees lived and worked.  The barriers allowed mainstream Hong Kong and its patriotic minority to co-exist not as mutually recognized communities within a single city but more like ships passing in the night, a state that was reinforced by the mid-1960s upsurge of violence inspired by China’s Cutlural Revolution.  As a result, the distinction between “us” and “them” persists to this day.

The confused tangle of questions pursuing CY Leung reflects that strange political culture built on decades of mutual isolation and silent antagonism.  Long repressed suspicions have emerged to challenge the pro-Beijing community as its members assume positions of leadership, by appointment and selection, allowing them to exercise authority over a community that until the 1980s refused to acknowledge their existence.

In fact, neither side knows how to address the other.  This has led to the exaggerated counter-productive criticism-struggle routines that ordinary Hong Kongers revile as “Cultural Revolution-style” rhetoric, like the campaign recently targeting Hong Kong University pollster Robert Chung (Feb. 6  post).   Meanwhile, the average person-in-the-street has no way of knowing whether Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive is a communist in disguise or not.  Maybe people don’t really care any more, but then again maybe they do.  It’s the uncertainty of not knowing, the suspicion of being deceived, that seems to matter most.

For the Chief Executive-designate, it has become a futile exercise.  Leung has denied repeatedly that he is now or has ever been a CCP member, but to no avail.  Of course he denies it, said veteran protester “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung during an April 15th television interview, “they always deny it.”  Surely Long Hair must know since he was born into and raised within the old patriotic community —  until he discovered Trotsky and rebelled at an early age.

The fine line of distinction between CY Leung and probable actual leaders of the underground local party branch (like Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing) is thus ignored by just about everyone.  Tsang has never been heard to deny point blank that he is, whereas CY has done so repeatedly.  The basic rule, observed over many years, suggests that CY should be taken at his word and Jasper should be taken at his as well, since he has never denied what he is assumed to be.  But the shadowy world of political deception, hidden agendas, and false pretenses has existed here for so long that suspicions cannot be laid to rest with so simple an observed rule of practice.

As luck would have it, on March 28 just days after his selection the official party newspaper, People’s Daily, posted on its website a brief biography of Hong Kong’s new  Chief Executive, “Comrade Leung Chun-ying.”  The political designation “comrade” is used only for party members and does not grace the resumes of either of his predecessors (Ming Pao Daily, Mar. 30).  “We told you so,” gloated the critics.  Here was proof positive of his party membership even if it soon disappeared  from the website and despite his calling in photographers to witness him signing a statement of denial.  Actually, the website interlude proved nothing.

According to the basic rules, non-party members must not address party members as “comrade” and vice versa.  But inevitably there are exceptions, as when a person has long, loyally, and meritoriously travelled the “united front” road, following the party center in all its twists and turns.  Evidently, mainland authorities view CY Leung in that light even if he does not actually belong to the organization.  Such considerations are leading some leading pro-democracy commentators here to conclude that when all is said and done “it really doesn’t matter” whether he is or is not …  which only adds further to the confusion.

Whether it really does not matter is a debatable question that the general public should be given the information necessary to consider for itself.  Someone should also explain to confused onlookers why some pro-democracy leaders and followers have been promoting the candidacy of Jasper Tsang for Chief Executive (Mar. 21 post).  If party members are such dangerous commodities, why is Tsang regarded as more acceptable than CY Leung?  Voters might like answers to such questions before heading to the polls in 2017 … assuming Beijing’s promise of a universal suffrage election actually comes to pass.

AN ADMINISTRATION IN THE MAKING:  FORECASTS AND FEARS

          Several well-known commentators offered their insights at a recent Saturday morning study session.*  All but one of the seven speakers are or have been associated in various ways with the pro-democracy camp and its causes.  The one exception, a vice-chairman of the main pro-Beijing political party (the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB), discussed the coming Legislative Council election (of which more later).  The others speculated about the new CY Leung administration focusing on two dimensions: (1) politics and political reform; (2) the contradictions between his populist social concerns and Hong Kong’s business-dominated way of economic life.

Since the new Chief Executive is playing his cards close to his vest, the forecasts were more like informed exercises in creating thinking.  Even the leading contenders for top-ranking appointments remain unknown.  Hong Kong’s most talkative retired politician, Allen Lee, still sees no reason to hide his long-standing dislike of CY and could not resist playing the provocateur with a prediction that Regina Ip might well become a leading member of his governing team.  Now an elected legislator and leader of her own small political party, Regina Ip once scorned popular elections and is still best remembered for her role as security secretary when she spearheaded the government’s abortive 2003 attempt to pass its national political security legislation (Feb. 14, 2011 post).  She has since apologized for her behavior then but as Lee knows well, the thought of her return to power will conjure up a host of dark memories.  To strengthen the guilt-by-association point he was trying to make, Lee revealed that her distinctive apple green Porsche had been seen parked in the vicinity of CY’s office.

Jokes aside, Lee’s purpose was clear even if he failed as usual to articulate it in so many words.  Pan-democrats fear that CY Leung, who has never demonstrated any sympathy or interest in their political reform causes, will carry on in the same vein.  Allen Lee was founder of the pro-business Liberal Party that saved the day in 2003 by withdrawing its legislative support for Regina Ip’s security project at the very last minute.  The party’s current chair, Miriam Lau, summarized the general concern more concisely during a TV interview aired the next day.

Like its founder, her party does not think much of CY and did not support him in the election.  She didn’t even bother to make a polite excuse for not attending the April 12th “reconciliation” dinner he hosted as a peacemaking gesture aimed at bringing his pro-establishment supporters and opponents together.  Lau then advertised the snub by allowing herself to be photographed eating out alone that evening at a fast food restaurant.  She said her party will monitor his performance and decide as they go whether he is maintaining Hong Kong’s “core values.”

These she described in the general way as “one country, two systems,” “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong,” and a “high degree of autonomy”  —  all subject to an infinite variety of interpretations.   She defined only one point clearly.  Why should the Legislative Council’s small-circle business-friendly Functional Constituencies be abolished, she asked, if they are continuing to serve Hong Kong.  But if Leung needs her support to counter  pan-democrats’ demand for “genuine”universal suffrage elections, the Liberal Party’s help will not necessarily be his for the asking.

Back at the Saturday seminar, speakers noted CY Leung’s political skills despite the doubts about how he would use them.  For the first time, said professor and Civic Party member, Joseph Cheng, we will have a “sophisticated politician” serving as Chief Executive, someone well-versed in political tactics and the machinery of building public support.  He meant, of course, the first since 1997.  Hong Kong’s last British governor was its first ever experience with a sophisticated professional politician as government leader.   Cheng also lamented pan-democrats’ failure “to protect” Hong Kong, but he did so in the typical way … by implication rather than explanation.  He was presumably referring to the communist party’s skillfully-orchestrated takeover from above and below that is now proceeding apace.

Another politically active professor, Ray Yep, indicated why some pan-democrats who focus on grassroots issues had begun paying attention to CY several years ago as he began reaching out to them to learn about different policy areas.   “He knows his stuff,” said Yep.  He sees in CY a man of substance who stands prepared to argue his case.

He also comes across as “arrogant and impatient,” said Michael DeGolyer, who heads Baptist University’s survey research Transition Project.  CY gives the impression of someone in too big a hurry and his populist concerns may not only set him against the business community.  He is also likely, predicted DeGolyer, to co-opt grassroots issues that pan-democrats have relied on to bolster their electoral support.

Equally important in this respect is CY’s tilt toward the 20,000-strong pro-Beijing DAB and its Federation of Trade Unions ally with 300,000+ affiliated members.  Both have been transformed during the past 20 years into efficient well-financed political machines dedicated to the provision of grassroots social services all year around and winning grassroots votes at election time.   Soon after his victory, CY went to both the DAB and the FTU, not the other way around, obviously feeling more at ease in their company than with any of the other political parties that made appointments to pay their courtesy calls at his office.  He also invited the DAB to name some of its members as likely candidates for him to consider in making his government appointments.

His two biggest challenges, however, are the civil service and the business sector.  Allen Lee claimed that some administrative officers are no longer on speaking terms, so intense were the disagreements between those supporting the two main Chief Executive candidates.  He questioned if CY could find enough capable people willing to fill all the slots in his administration whether from inside or outside the service.  As for big business, well-known Hong Kong Economic Journal writer, Joseph Lian predicted that the two camps would be unable to reconcile.  He speculated further that the losing side would do all in its power to make CY a one-term Chief Executive.

All of these strains can be seen in the one policy decision he has so far announced.  An issue known in the U.S. as “anchor babies” has reached alarming proportions here, given Hong Kong’s small size relative to the limitless numbers of mainland women rushing to take advantage of the liberal local “citizenship birthright” law and the many health, education, and welfare benefits that come with it.

The problem is relatively recent, having grown from only about 600 babies (born to mainland women without Hong Kong husbands) a decade ago.  For the first 11 months of 2011, the number was 33,500.  These were 80% of the total mainland mother phenomenon, which in turn represented close to half the total number of all live births here (Ming Pao Daily, Feb. 10, 2012).  Various measures have been adopted aimed at curtailing access to public hospitals where the current quota is set at 3,400.  But their private counterparts have expanded obstetrics services and exorbitant fees are no deterrent.  Nothing has so far been able to stem the tide, which is facilitated by an open border, recently authorized individual travel permits, and a dense network of intermediaries on both sides of the border.

The root of the problem, however, is Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, Article 24(1), that enshrines the common law right of “citizenship” (in this case permanent residency) for all Chinese citizens (but not everyone) born here.  Debate and disagreement have raged in the search for solutions other than the drastic precedent-setting step of amending the Basic Law.  The government was planning to limit the 2013 quota of mainland births to 25,000 in private hospitals (for mainland women not married to Hong Kong men)  …  until CY Leung’s sudden April 16th announcement reiterating his campaign promise for a complete ban.  He will aim for a zero-quota plan and warned mainland gate crashers (who arrive unannounced at emergency rooms) not to expect residency status for their babies.

Leung’s intervention set off alarm bells in many quarters.  Here at last was an example of decisive leadership, and a highly popular move as well.  But the style was arbitrary, impatient of legal niceties, dismissive of long-term demographic trends, and contrary to Hong Kong’s way of doing business-as-usual or so initially said private hospital managers.

She had no solutions but on this dimension, too, Miriam Lau offered the most concise summary of its challenges and why her party has resolved to wait-and-see.  Business agrees, she said, that the growing gap between rich and poor has become unsustainable and its many manifestations must be addressed.  CY’s populist concerns in this respect are not misplaced.   But then she pivoted and transformed them into the conundrum that has always blocked progress at the interface between social reform and economics.

Solutions must be sought in ways that do not undermine the fragile flower of business confidence.  That means a continuation of Hong Kong’s “big market, small government” non-interventionist gospel, said Lau.  Tax reform is unnecessary because Hong Kong has ample reserves to care for its poor.  Poverty alleviation is best tackled by generating new sources of wealth, by promoting new business and industries to increase opportunities for the younger generation.  We are fine with CY’s basic focus on the wealth gap, she said.  It’s only how he goes about trying to fulfill his campaign promises that we worry about.

*  Sponsored by Hong Kong University, the U.S. National Democratic Institute, and the Canadian Consulate General, April 21.    Video link:  www.ourtv.hk

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