New leader, same old problems
The chaos surrounding Tung Chee-hwa's apparent early departure from his position as chief executive suggests that there is a lot more wrong with the system of government in Hong Kong and with its relationship with Beijing than just Mr Tung himself.
It is not even clear whether his successor will be selected for a full five-year term or merely to finish the remainder of Mr Tung's term. That is critical not only to the issue of who will be the next chief executive but also to whether the debate over the selection system to be used in 2007 is relevant any longer.
If his successor is to be in the job temporarily, there are unlikely to be too many objections to Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen as caretaker. However, if we are looking at anything more permanent for Mr Tsang, there must be serious questions.
The fact is that having started out being seen as a credible successor to Anson Chan Fang On-sang, an accomplished bureaucrat who was trusted by the British colonialists, Mr Tsang has become associated with most of the things that have made his boss unpopular. Whether it has been handling of the Sars crisis, obeisance to the interests of property tycoons, or his role in trying to sidetrack pressure for political reform and democratisation, Mr Tsang has faithfully done the bidding of his master. For him, that has been essential to make himself a credible candidate in Beijing's eyes. It has taken an excess of loyalty to Mr Tung and the central government to make up for the knighthood, the bow tie and a reputation for loyalty to the British and the Catholic Church. But therein lies Mr Tsang's problem. Hong Kong needs a new leader. But the operative word is leader. Mr Tsang's record is one of the subservience expected of a senior bureaucrat to his political masters. He has done it well enough and can deal with the press and public in a way that is alien to Mr Tung. But that is not leadership.
Mr Tsang's subservience has been apparent in a number of ways which go beyond that required of a deputy. For example, his pursuit of the West Kowloon cultural project in the face of massive opposition can be seen partly as an example of the arrogance of a senior bureaucrat. It was also a sop to the big developer interests whose political clout in Beijing, as well as locally, says a lot about the mix of authoritarianism and money politics to be found at the centre of 'one country'. Nor has he been willing to speak up for freedom of religion for his fellow Catholics in the 'one country'.
His record as financial secretary was not particularly impressive - indeed, it was marked by tax giveaways, narrowing the tax base and providing big concessions to the upper-middle class income earners, which partly explains the huge gap still remaining in the recurrent budget. Hong Kong is not going to get a more democratic way of choosing its chief executive any time soon. The reality is that, despite the Basic Law and 'one country, two systems', Beijing increasingly decides on major issues. That is partly out of temperament and partly because Mr Tung and Mr Tsang between them have made a habit of looking to the central government when the going has got tough. Mr Tsang has no better record than Mr Tung in defending Hong Kong interests.
Indeed, he appears to represent not merely Beijing's political interests but, just as importantly, the interests of the bureaucrat and big business lobby against those who would query it - the judiciary, which still rules against the government on issues such as reclamation and the Link Reit, as well as the Democrats and other voices of opposition.
Other names for chief executive have been mentioned, including insiders Henry Tang Ying-yen, Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and even the accomplished semi-outsider, Victor Fung Kwok-king. There is no space here to debate the respective merits of these, or others. But all are fresher faces not linked to the main failures of the Tung administration, and all have experiences which go well beyond those to which a career civil servant is exposed.
That is not to say a civil servant cannot make a good leader. But there is scant merit in changing chief executive in mid-term unless there is to be a change of thinking about the way government operates. Democracy may be able to wait, but transparency and commitment to Hong Kong interests over mainland or personal interests cannot.
In 1997, I wrote in these pages that Hong Kong would be better off with a strong-willed mainlander with political clout in Beijing and a desire to make a success of Hong Kong than with a local who is forever looking over his shoulder to the backseat driver. Mr Tsang is just that subservient local.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator