Posted:  May 14, 2012

 

The guessing game continues but for now one of the two main questions surrounding Leung Chun-ying’s selection as Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive (April 25 post) is receding.   Suspicions about his communist party membership have not been laid to rest but without convincing proof one way or the other, that controversy has receded.  Attention now is focused on how he will govern and the outline is taking shape as names are leaked and reports about leading contenders for the top positions begin to circulate.  In terms of his populist campaign promises and the political fears his candidacy provoked, there are no surprises.  His emerging team reflects both.

POSITIVES

Detractors said CY would never be able to find enough capable people willing serve in his administration but nominations have already been made and accepted for all the top posts.  Since many are actually old names in new places, the background checks and Beijing’s approval should pose few problems.     For pan-democrats and those concerned about a “red” CY administration, however, the prognosis is decidedly mixed.  On the plus side, he has declared that all his top officials must be prepared to meet and interact regularly with the public as he himself tried to do during his pre-selection campaign.  Perhaps for that reason, Beijing’s reported favorite to move up the line of succession is out of the running.

He is the current second-in-command or Chief Secretary for Administration Stephen Lam Sui-lung [Lin Ruilin 林瑞麟 ], one-time protégé of former Chief Secretary Anson Chan who now says she no longer recognizes the young talent she tapped back in the  1990s.  He made a negative impression from his earliest days as an information officer in the first post-1997 administration of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.  Yet Lam continued to be promoted up the ladder from one sensitive post to the next, allegedly at Beijing’s behest because he is both efficient and loyal to a fault.   Among other things, he was nicknamed “the human tape recorder” for his strange robotic habit of repeating the officially correct position on every issue and in response to every question.  Even serious news reports refer to him as “Eunuch Lam,” an image reinforced by cartoonists and street theater performers who love to portray him in traditional pre-1911 Chinese dress as the perfect caricature of a sycophantic imperial official.

What caused Beijing finally to see the light in this case is not known but Lam’s decision to take early retirement (and pursue religious studies in England) is in line with the new “public acceptability” criterion as well as CY’s meet-the-public demand.  Also in line with the new emphasis is his choice for Lam’s successor, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor [Lin Zheng Yue’e 林鄭月娥 ] currently Secretary for Development.  She is the official that an all-male group of rowdy New Territories leaders burned in effigy a few months ago, after she said she really did mean the time had come to clean up their act, remove all their illegal structures, stop occupying government land without payment or permission, and so on (March 21 post).   She meets with approval most everywhere else and her outgoing no-nonsense style has made her one of the most “acceptable” members of the current administration’s leadership team.

After the Chief Secretary, the next most important official is the Financial Secretary.  Incumbent John Tsang Chun-wah [ Zeng Junhua  曾俊華 ]  is slated to continue in his post presumably to quiet the business community’s fears.  Tsang’s budgets have won little praise from social reformers who have protested his free-marketeer’s approach to poverty alleviation:  piecemeal charity handouts, yes; entitlements, no.  But he will be seen as a safe pair of hands while the new Chief Executive tries to fulfill his campaign promises and maintain economic stability all at the same time.

NEGATIVES

Like CY himself, however, all kinds of unlikely people can develop political skills they never displayed before and one other such individual is the former security secretary Regina Ip.   After her 2003 debacle, she returned from three years at Stanford University a changed woman … in some respects if not all.  She had boasted during the Chief Executive campaign that both CY and Henry Tang offered her leading roles in their prospective administrations.  Allen Lee’s sarcastic prediction, based on her boast and sightings of her apple green Porsche, proved correct (April 25 post).

Regina Ip’s full rehabilitation is now assured with her imminent return to government probably as a member without portfolio of CY Leung’s Executive Council or cabinet.  This is composed of both the leading officials or ministerial secretaries and a selection of community leaders.   On the plus side of this negative, he plans to reduce the number of social notables and concentrate on appointing political party representatives.  Regina Ip will therefore qualify as a directly-elected Legislative Councilor and leader of her own small political party.   But her return also signals danger ahead for pan-democrats on their single most important issue since the appointment looks suspiciously like a reward for her support at a critical juncture of his campaign.

During their final March debates, CY’s main opponent, Henry Tang, betrayed the Executive Council’s strict confidentiality rule by recalling that in 2003 when they were all members of the council, CY had argued in favor of forcing through the Article 23 national political security legislation.  This he did despite the public opposition it (and Regina Ip in the role of lead promoter) was provoking.  He allegedly said the day would surely come when the government would need the extra authority the law provided to use riot police and tear gas against protesters  (March 21 post).   Leung denied the allegation and Regina Ip rushed to his defense.  Condemning the breach of confidentiality as an act of desperation on Tang’s part, she recalled her role at the heart of the controversy and said she had no memory of any such statement by Leung (March 17:  South China Morning Post, China Daily, Wen Wei Po).  No one has come forward to confirm the allegation and such minutes as are kept of council meetings will not be released.

Question marks over the future of rights and freedoms also surround the appointment of the third most important official in Hong Kong’s government lineup, namely, the Secretary for Justice.   Given the central role of an independent judiciary in pan-democrats’ scheme of things, and persistent loyalist pressure for mainland-style “cooperation” among all the branches of government, some have been shocked to learn that the leading contender for the post is barrister Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung [Yuan Guoqiang  袁國強 ].  This is because he is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) for neighboring Guangdong province and has never said or done anything contrary to the assumptions attached to that position.

Like its companion, the National People’s Congress, the CPPCC is based on a nationwide hierarchy of representative assemblies except that the latter is not a formal law-making body.   All members are also appointed rather than indirectly elected from the lowermost levels upwards as are all representatives within the party-dominated people’s congress system.  Appointment to the advisory CPPCC is an honor extended to politically amenable local elites.  More prominent senior Hong Kongers are appointed directly to the National Committee of the CPPCC.  Others are appointed to the conferences of neighboring provinces and prefectures as part of the communist party’s long-standing tradition of “united front” outreach.  CY Leung sat as a delegate on the CPPCC National Committee until he resigned last year preparatory to running for Chief Executive.

Rimsky Yuen’s appointment in late 2007 created a stir since he was at the time chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, which is proud of its reputation as defender of Hong Kong’s independent legal system.  In contrast, pro-Beijing partisans said Yuen had chosen the correct path, that is, from confrontation with to absorption within the mainland political system.  He stepped down as Bar Association chairman in 2009 but remains a CPPCC member.  He is reportedly Beijing’s preferred candidate and was not CY’s first choice.

Said barrister and democracy movement elder, Martin Lee, Rimsky Yuen is not a bad person, he’s just naive and I’ll be the first to say so if he steps out of line.  But he is not expected to follow in the footsteps of the incumbent Wong Yan-lung [Huang Renlong 黃仁龍] who most everyone agrees has done his best to safeguard Hong Kong’s judicial independence (May 8:  Ming Pao Daily, Apple, Wen Wei Po).  …  A mild verdict, indeed, from Martin Lee who has spoken out repeatedly against CY Leung and is among those who cannot be convinced that he is not a communist party member.   Barrister and Civic Party legislator Audrey Yu was not so charitable.  She said once a person is “dyed red,” resigning from the CPPCC will not be enough to “bleach him white” (Apple Daily, May 3, 9).

POPULARITY vs. ACCOUNTABILITY

CY’s top appointments need only be approved by Beijing.   Beyond them, however, he also wants to do a bit of remodeling, the better he says to streamline implementation of his populist campaign promises.  Specifically, he aims to add six top ranking positions and many minor ones, which will mean a substantial addition to the administrative budget, and for that he needs the Legislative Council’s approval.  However small this window of opportunity, legislators want to use it and pan-democrats are mustering their forces accordingly.  If he really means to address popular needs, they say, then the least he can do is explain to the public why he needs to spend so much more public money on an already top-heavy bureaucracy.   They are threatening to block the funding vote unless he agrees to hold a formal public consultation.

His plans call for a new Deputy Chief Secretary to coordinate the work of the bureaus directly responsible for labor, welfare, education, and culture.   A new Deputy Financial Secretary will oversee knowledge-based information-technology development, commerce, and industry all in the context of enhanced Hong Kong-mainland economic integration.   Leung sees this last as key to the expanded opportunities and diversification Hong Kong needs for economic growth.  Additionally, two new bureaus will be added, one for culture and the other for information technology, bringing the total number of policy-making bureaus to 14.

The new Chief Executive is so far standing firm against pan-democrats’ demand for a public consultation saying the public has already been told about his plans because they were included in his campaign platform statements and he will do more grassroots-level visits in the coming weeks.   The current administration is also helping out with supporting statements from officials and civil servants all in favor of Leung restructuring and hiring plans.  Critics will probably have to settle for the Legislative Council’s two days of public hearings tentatively scheduled for later this month, but their rear guard action and its likely result are symptomatic of something more than Leung’s “lead from above” governing style.

WHERE TO FROM HERE …  ?

Pan-democratic leaders and commentators are not actually admitting as much in so many words, but an air of resignation is setting in as people look forward and back and realize that the 30-year campaign for Western-style directly-elected government is essentially lost.   It’s difficult to conclude otherwise.

No one is even suggesting any alternatives to the Chief Executive Election Committee, which means the same conservative body that has just elected CY Leung will be responsible for nominating the candidate in 2017.    But also unspoken is the corollary:   even if the committee were to be re-designed, pan-democrats have no plausible candidate waiting in the wings.  And if the new Chief Executive is successful with his team of conservative professionals, pan-democrats will be further eclipsed.  He has never shown any interest in political reform and continues to say nothing about it when asked.  The District Councils are now lost to the opposition, their small constituencies entrenched around the regular provision of neighborhood amenities that pan-democrats cannot match.  And half the Legislative Council is still represented by the Functional Constituencies with no end in sight.

Hong Kong’s current political playing field recalls the immediate post-1997 years of political drift.  Pan-democrats only revived when the government’s attempt to pass national security legislation reminded them of the dangers they had vowed to protect Hong Kong against.  Those were the years, 1999-2003, when its “Young Turk” radicals began deserting the Democratic Party.  Rather than sit it out in a dead-end “debating society” Legislative Council, they said it was better to head back to the streets where their movement began.  They kept their political ideals alive in that way (and left it to their pro-Beijing opponents to master the disciplines of electoral success).  But at least pan-democrats lived to fight another day and learned how to survive in retreat.

Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek (Zheng Yushi 鄭宇碩), a  veteran activist and Civic Party member who was there at the beginning in the early 1980s, reflected that generational inheritance at the April 21st seminar on political reform (April 25 post).  The pro-democracy political parties have not done enough, he said, we have “failed to protect Hong Kong.”  What to do?  He could only plead for continuing commitment and active participation, saying we must carry on the struggle to uphold Hong Kong’s “core values.”  Especially come out to march on July First, he said, evoking the memory of the July 1, 2003 protest that had given Hong Kong’s flagging democracy movement a new lease on life.  The commemorative July First march has since become an annual event and pan-democrats are pinning their hopes on a high turnout this year (video link:  www.ourtv.hk , English, April 21 seminar, panel 2).

Another veteran activist Ho Hei-wah (He Xihua  何喜華 ) has a similar prescription.  He heads the Society for Community Organization or SOCO, one of Hong Kong’s oldest social action groups … so old that the British put it on their blacklist of potential subversives back in the late 1970s.  Ho Hei-wah was among those pan-democrats who came out for CY Leung early on because of his platform emphasis on housing, social welfare, and livelihood issues.  Ho still likes what he sees in that respect.   To fellow democrats who worry about the new Chief Executive’s political inclinations, Ho Hei-wah says he is more worried about self-censorship in the media under pressure from the commercial interests who dominate it.  He would not blindly trust whoever is Chief Executive and doesn’t fear Leung any more than he would Henry Tang.

This long-time social activist and human rights campaigner says human rights are something people must take for themselves.  Everyone should remain on guard, netizens must be ever vigilant, and people need to unite for protection.  But he is less pessimistic than Joseph Cheng, probably because Cheng is a political scientist first, politician second, and activist third.  Ho Hei-wah is a social activist first, last, and always, and does not see the institutions of elected representative government as a guarantee against political danger.  He thinks the new Chief Executive will concentrate first on housing and livelihood issues and only then, after he has secured public opinion, will he turn to political tasks like electoral reform and the Basic Law’s Article 23 national security mandate.  Yet that prospect, and the legitimacy Leung will accumulate in the process, does not concern Ho Hei-wah.  He is putting his faith in Hong Kong’s commitment to its core values and on the public’s ability to protect itself against all looming political dangers … just as it did on July 1, 2003 (Ming Pao Daily interview, May 2).

suzpepper@gmail.com

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