Even race for top spot

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 September, 1996, 12:00am

Poll results show that in a race for the post of chief executive between Sir Ti Liang Yang and Tung Chee-hwa, Sir Ti Liang would beat Mr Tung with a margin of 30 per cent.

It is a matter of notoriety: whoever has more media exposure will get wider support. Thus, now that Mr Tung has declared that he is considering standing, with the resultant media focus, it is possible he would beat Sir Ti Liang in the next poll with a similar margin.

But, this is not a democratic election. The polls have no bearing on who is going to win. However, what they do is lend Beijing an apparently objective basis for claiming there is public support for either man. If the British have been pressing the criterion of confidence of the public on the Chinese, then it would be hard for them to argue that Sir Ti Liang fails to meet that criterion. And, they can hardly disparage Sir Ti Liang since they appointed him chief justice.

In spite of the carefully worded British denial that they promoted the Tung Chee-hwa/Anson Chan Fang On-sang team few doubt that they favour Mr Tung. The emergence of Sir Ti Liang as a contender caught the British by surprise, and unpleasantly so.

Mrs Chan makes no secret of her willingness to work with Mr Tung should he be appointed. The British would have preferred her in that role, but if that is not possible, the 'Tung-Chan' partnership is the best alternative.

If the polls are any indication, Mr Tung enjoys a degree of popularity, which is based on; one, nothing bad is known about him personally; two, he appears amicable; and three, Mrs Chan's acceptance of him carries weight with the public.

But what kind of choice is Mr Tung? The fiercest criticism has not been against him, but his success as a businessman. The public cannot be sure that his private interests will not affect the way he handles his public duties.

Further, he is associated with the pro-China stance of the business community. It has been perceived as selfish, concerned only with the rich.

That the British have found someone of such a background acceptable as chief executive is not as surprising as it may first seem, and quite independent of the advantage of keeping Mrs Chan in charge. Business has always been at the forefront of British dealings with Hong Kong - and will be the only British interest after 1997.

The British, up to Chris Patten's arrival, have always been pro-China. The stance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Office is and will remain so.

But if Mr Tung reflects that stance, he must also reflect the character of the men who own the business empires. They are used to international exposure and have stature in the business world. They reflect, with their Chineseness, the values and habits of a business world that is deeply Westernised. Such men are leaders.

In Mr Tung's case, our eyes are dazzled by the daily parade of people who join him.

He may, if he takes on the task of being chief executive, want to run his own team. The contact he has enjoyed with Beijing will help him to access these same people in the future.

None of this is likely to be of comfort to the public. It is easy to forget that he may be convinced of views on the way to govern Hong Kong which are in agreement with Beijing. He may be convinced that a firm hand is required for stability. He may justify, on such grounds, measures the more liberally minded will consider fundamentally wrong.

But this is unlikely to be of concern to Britain.

Some may say that neither should it be an obstacle for Hong Kong, because it reflects the division of views within the territory. It would still be 'Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong', and people with differing views may be able to persuade such a chief executive to balance his inclinations with theirs.

Ironically, this may be a reason against Mr Tung in Beijing's eyes, where the decision is going to be made. It is hard to see Beijing favouring someone with a local power base, who really means to run the show; to whom it may be hard to deny access. The job is too vital to give to someone they cannot trust, and this does not look like the profile of someone who they can trust implicitly.

Sir Ti Liang offers a different alternative. It is unlikely that he harbours ambitions. He has no power base. He has no formidable supporter within the political arena other than, if reports are to be believed, T S Lo, and this can easily be counter-balanced.

Sir Ti Liang as chief executive is unlikely to be a thorn in Beijing's flesh.

Sir Ti Liang may defend the common law system inherited from England - translated elegantly into Chinese, but he will not do much, if anything, to defend British business interests.

Sir Ti Liang's appointment could only be unobjectionable to the world at large, since a judge suggests impartiality and an emphasis on law and lawfulness. Only lawyers are cynical enough to note how generally removed judges' lives are from reality. Only locals have the opportunity to see the individual close-up.

Those who criticise Sir Ti Liang for lack of administrative experience miss the point. The question is, what kind of a leader is Sir Ti Liang? Can he, for example, say that governing Hong Kong is straightforward, for it is all provided in the Basic Law, and who is more qualified at interpreting the Basic Law than a top judge? Here lies the difficulty. Because it is not the letter of the Basic Law, but how it is to be interpreted that worries the people of Hong Kong. When the interpretation of a provision is favourable to Hong Kong but disliked by Beijing, whose side will Sir Ti Liang come down on? There is one question pending: the legal and constitutional basis or the lack of it in the provisional legislature. Not long ago, there was the issue of whether the Bill of Rights Ordinance contravened the Basic Law. The position Sir Ti Liang took, then chief justice, was not reassuring to the public.

But what shook the legal fraternity was not so much his superficial view of the legal issues involved, but the exposure of his attitude and personality. He was clearly inclined to buckle under pressure.

Thus, if the test used to measure the chief executive is one of whether he can withstand undue influence from the mainland Sir Ti Liang may not pass.

There is, therefore, not much of a choice between the two still-possibles from Hong Kong's point of view. However, it is unwarranted optimism to believe we have a choice in this matter. Whoever fills the post of the chief executive of the SAR is far too important for Beijing to leave to chance.