How calm was restored after the storm

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2005, 12:00am

It became a routine meeting. Every time Tung Chee-hwa returned to work after a mainland trip, he would meet his deputy, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, at the Chief Executive's Office to hear what had happened in his absence.

On the surface, the meeting on March 6 appeared as routine as ever.

Mr Tung returned to his office at government headquarters at about 6pm. Five minutes later, Mr Tsang left his Mercedes-Benz in the car park. Television news footage showed him with one hand in his pocket, whistling his way to the entrance.

The relaxed look on the face of man now most likely to be chief executive, however, did not tell the full story.

With his boss set to step down officially in a matter of days, Mr Tsang was already feeling the rising political heat. He had begun to confront the huge task and difficult challenges ahead.

Once Mr Tung was gone, Mr Tsang emphasised, his first task was to keep Hong Kong on course, and to ensure a trouble-free election for chief executive on July 10. One of his major tasks was passage of an amendment bill on the tenure of the new chief executive, which was completed on Wednesday.

On a personal level, Mr Tsang was critically aware of the precarious situation he would face as soon as he succeeded Mr Tung as acting chief executive on March 12.

At the top of his political agenda was a potential crisis that had to be defused: yet another Basic Law interpretation by the National People's Congress Standing Committee - this time on the new chief executive's term. Mr Tsang had to handle that political hot potato in the knowledge that he was just a step away from moving into the top job himself.

At the same time, Mr Tsang had to live with the spreading political fallout from the leadership shake-up.

Giving a signal of the deep-seated discontent among pro-Beijing figures towards Mr Tsang, legislator Choy So-yuk said on an RTHK programme last month: 'He was viewed by some in the pro-Beijing camp as arrogant, and disrespecting of the patriotic values they cherished and treasured.'

During one Legislative Council question time, he was grilled by suspicious members for details of his meetings with Liao Hui , director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, in Shenzhen over the past two years.

A photo call featuring an 11-second handshake between Mr Tsang and President Hu Jintao at the beginning of a business conference last week has been likened to the famous handshake between Mr Tung and former president Jiang Zemin before the handover - seen as an endorsement of Mr Tung as chief executive.

The episodes illustrate the potential risks and predicaments faced by Mr Tsang on his ascendancy to the top post, in the face of sensitivity and hidden tensions in mainland-Hong Kong relations.

Even though the new chief executive's term will last only about two years, the scramble for power has begun in earnest. The government-friendly Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong and the Liberal Party have demanded that more ministerial posts be given to political parties to help bridge the executive-legislative gap.

The democrats, meanwhile, are hoping to pin Mr Tsang down on his stance on sensitive issues, such as a timetable for universal suffrage, and take him to task over the failures of the Tung administration.

His appearances at a wide range of events - including a Buddhist festival, a political satire show and a district walkabout - have put him in the media spotlight.

As he resigned from the government on Wednesday night to contest the chief executive election, there were good reasons why he might have breathed a sigh of relief.

The election bill passed on Wednesday without any hitches.

Opinion surveys show an overwhelming majority of respondents support his candidacy. Satisfaction ratings over the government's performance have improved.

Mr Tsang is critically aware of the importance of reassuring the people that it's business as usual - in the wake of the government shake-up following the resignation of Mr Tung. So he has made decisions when necessary.

The policymaking process has not slowed down under the caretaker administration. Government appointments have been made as scheduled, with few of the delays that often occurred under the Tung administration.

A cabinet member said: 'Things have gone more smoothly and efficiently, without being held up' in the Chief Executive's Office.

Ridiculed as a 'black hole' in the centre of power, the Tung office was seen as the source of a litany of leadership problems. Documents submitted by policy bureaus and departments for clearance piled up, with no action taken.

Of the cases that became public, delays in appointing office-holders left power vacuums in several statutory bodies.

Lo Chi-kin, a seasoned public affairs analyst who runs the consultancy C.K. Lo & S. Lam, said Mr Tsang had succeeded in changing the public's perception that the administration was incompetent and inefficient. Dr Lo cited the overhaul of the scandal-plagued Equal Opportunities Commission as a case in point. The unusual step of removing all members of such a body at the same time has given a positive perception of the government's determination to make a fresh start in the leadership of the commission, he said.

Dr Lo, a former Democratic Party executive committee member, said Mr Tsang had been able to instil confidence in the government through his deeds, words and public appearances.

'Beijing is also keen to send a message of [the government's competence] in the post-Tung era ... Over the past few years, people have become fed up with incompetent officials. This is also why opinion polls show many people want Mr Tsang to sack inept ministers.'

With 38 years of service in government - including six years as financial secretary and four years as chief secretary - Mr Tsang's skill, knowledge and experience are beyond doubt. His long-time relationship with most key members of the pan-democratic camp has also been a big help in engaging the opposition.

After more than seven years of a leadership in disarray, Mr Tsang was keen to restore order in the policymaking layer of government and improve ties between the executive and legislative branches .

Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Mr Tsang had been instrumental in restoring a feel-good sentiment to the city.

'He understands his weaknesses. He has worked very hard to control his temperament, to be seen as inclusive and tolerant ... Politics is about perception. As long as he can keep the momentum of economic recovery and improvement of employment going, the feel-good factor will prevail.

'With a term of only two years, it would be unrealistic to expect he would venture into bold, major policy initiatives. One of the few things he could do to bring about total change of perception towards the government is to foster closer ties with the democrats.

'The public wants to see a grand conciliation between the government and the democrats after years of bickering. Donald is smart. He knows how to separate his personal feelings from practical political interest in dealing with issues like the democrats,' said Mr Choy.

Mr Tsang's shift towards a soft, non-combative approach is in line with Beijing's policy of 'three pursuits' - stability, development and harmony - after the July 1 rallies.

One pro-democracy legislator said Mr Tsang 'has become more active in mingling with members from different factions' in the Legco building. 'Donald is Donald,' the legislator said. 'He has not changed much. The government has changed a lot, though.

'Some ministers felt unease about Donald, particularly those who were said to be on the 'out' list. The pro-Tung camp remains at a loss about the change. Those who are pro-Tsang and those who do not belong to the Tung camp feel happy and upbeat about the developments,' he said.

The legislator, who did not wish to be named, said Mr Tsang had promoted, and would continue to promote in his election campaign, Hong Kong's identity, its capable administration, people-oriented governance and communication with the central government.

'He will launch a massive campaign. He will go everywhere to meet with people,' he said.

Dr Lo said it was clear Mr Tsang would like to make more friends, not enemies, and to nurture a harmonious atmosphere.

'Donald is so smart that he knows there are things that he will not be able to pursue. He will wait for the creation of more room for political manoeuvrings.'

Mr Tsang, who is known for his close attention to public opinion, understands well that high popularity can be both a blessing and a curse. As expectations rise, the risk of a backlash becomes higher when expectations clash with reality.

Mr Choy said: 'As government popularity stays at a high point, people tend to be less critical but more tolerant of what officials have done.

'He will make full use of the upcoming election campaign to strengthen and consolidate his base of public support. This could help prolong the honeymoon period. Even when he has to pay a price for controversial decisions later, he will be able to stock up political capital to cushion against challenges in difficult times,' he said.

In a statement on Wednesday about his resignation and plan to stand for the election, Mr Tsang vowed to work hard to engage the community and win its support.

He added a personal touch, saying his resignation - albeit only temporary - after almost 40 years of service was 'an emotional moment'.

A reporter asked him to relate his feelings when he had whistled on his way to meet Mr Tung. Mr Tsang replied: 'There are times when I feel relaxed, worried, sad and sentimental during the day. Sometimes you would find me smiling, or carrying a long face. This is only natural.'

Soon after his resignation is approved, Mr Tsang will embark on the campaign trail. There, he will propagate his ideas and thoughts, and share his feelings and inner thoughts on how to make Hong Kong a better home under his leadership.