Chan's untimely exit
THE retirement without clear explanation of a 49-year-old Government policy secretary would raise eyebrows under any circumstances. When the departing high-flier is Secretary for Education and Manpower Mr John Chan Cho-chak, widely tipped as a future Chief Secretary, speculation will inevitably fill the vacuum created by the unexpected departure. For months now, the only question mark over his future career course has been not whether but when he would take the top civil service post. If he did not slip directly into Sir David Ford's shoes, it would be because it had been decided he should keep a low profile for as long as Sino-British relations remained tense. He would then be able to take over - perhaps as early as 1996 - with his stock still high in Beijing and his reputation untainted by too close an association with British colonial policy.
His departure will create the risk of loss of morale in the civil service. The rest of yesterday's Government reshuffle suggests a certain desperation at his departure. The other obvious front-runner for the Chief Secretary's post was until now thought to be Secretary for Economic Services Mrs Anson Chang Fang On-sang. She remains the best candidate, yet unless her posting to be Secretary for the Civil Service, and the curious choice of the relatively junior Mr Gordon Siu to replace her at Economic Services are intended as interim measures, the Governor seems in no hurry to appoint her to the top job. For the moment, Sir David's own transfer to London looks as if it might be delayed.
Mr Chan has refused to comment, other than to repeat the official explanation that his retirement was due to ''personal reasons''. That meaningless phrase, which could be interpreted to indicate anything from poor health to a desire to seek his fortune in the Cayman Islands, does nothing to stifle conjecture that Mr Chan's departure from the civil service serves a long-term strategy of remaining acceptable to Hongkong's future masters.
The truth may be entirely innocent. He would not be the first civil servant to have decided the rewards are higher and the stresses lower in the private sector. Given the worries 1997 must hold for a man in his position, even one who has made a principleof keeping his head down and avoiding jobs that could lead him into confrontation with China, Mr Chan may have decided to opt for a quieter life.
Nor would it be the first time Mr Chan has quit the civil service. In 1978 he left for a stint as an executive with Sun Hung Kai, only to return two years later at the same rank, in what was seen at the time as an unusual accolade to his abilities.
That was 13 years ago. In the interim he has been Deputy Secretary for the Civil Service, Secretary for General Duties, Director of Information Services, Deputy Chief Secretary and Secretary for Trade and Industry. If, despite the public image, Mr Chan has now been given to understand that his talents are no longer as highly valued as he had been led to believe - or are less appreciated by Mr Patten than they were by Lord Wilson - he might have opted out in disappointment.
Alternatively, and more in character, he may calculate there is no point in wasting his best years languishing in the second rank when he could be earning a fortune with one of the major hongs. Even after a suitable cooling-off period - the usual period on the employment shelf expected of senior civil servants is about six months - his contacts and inside knowledge would be invaluable on the board of any leading Hongkong company.
Yet inevitably there will be those who suspect he plans a second triumphant return to government after 1997. If Mr Chan does harbour such ambitions, they can only be realised with the knowledge and support of the Chinese Government. Letting it be known in Beijing he is wholly opposed to Mr Patten's constitutional reform proposals and gubernatorial style would be an essential part of consolidating that support. Leaving Mr Patten's government at this delicate juncture would ensure the message is understood in China.
To make the sacrifice worthwhile, however, Mr Chan would have to be aiming higher than Chief Secretary. His insider's knowledge of the Hongkong Government would make him more useful to China as the first Chief Executive. His choice of a new career may bethe first indication of his plans. Jardines would be an unlikely choice.