Road to top job strewn with surprises

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2005, 12:00am

When Tung Chee-hwa shook hands with former president Jiang Zemin in the Great Hall of the People in 1996, the shipping tycoon may have never expected that a year latter he would be governing Hong Kong.

After the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, a devout Catholic, probably thanked God for surviving the handover.

Not only did he keep his job as financial secretary, but he went on to succeed Anson Chan Fang On-sang in 2001 as chief secretary. And, in June this year, he scored the ultimate political prize when he was elected uncontested as Mr Tung's successor.

The separate journeys of Hong Kong's two chief executives to the seat of power are worth revisiting in the context of speculation already flying about who will run in the 2007 race.

Last Monday, tycoon Peter Woo Kwong-ching tried to quell speculation that he would launch a second bid for the top post. Rumours have been rife in political and business circles in recent months that Mr Woo had quietly stepped up preparations for 2007.

A prominent businessman said Mr Woo had privately said on several occasions that the next chief executive race remained open, a hint that Beijing had not yet come to any conclusion on the next leader. Mr Woo's remarks have been interpreted as a signal of his intention to join the contest.

The comeback theory has not been seen as far-fetched. Pundits cited recent comments by Mr Woo on a chief executive's business background and constitutional development as proof he still has a keen interest in politics.

But as the speculation grew more intense, the prominent businessman surprised analysts with an early move to kill it. Earlier this month, Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun raised eyebrows when he revealed Mr Woo had asked him to clarify whether he intended to run for the next chief executive.

Shortly after Mr Tien's comments, Mr Woo returned from an overseas trip and reiterated he would not join the race, adding that he would support Mr Tsang if the current chief executive sought a five-year term.

But pundits' reactions to Mr Woo's attempt to count himself out of the contest have ranged from disbelief to puzzlement.

One veteran political figure said: 'Do you think he will say no if Beijing is going to ask him to do the job? Who knows whether Donald will be able to keep the situation under control in the next two years? What if another half a million people take to the streets?'

Another source said some in the business community had doubts over Mr Woo's true intentions. 'He's so successful in business. Going for the post of chief executive sounds appealing to him,' he said.

The size, composition and methods of the election committee which will select the next chief executive are still on the drawing board, therefore, it is mind-boggling that a person considered a prime candidate would opt out already.

There are also signs that another hopeful, Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, is likely to stay out of the 2007 race.

This is despite a lack of signs from Beijing that it has made a decision on the next chief executive. The contrary is perhaps true.

If Beijing has learned one lesson from the disappointing tenure of Tung Chee-hwa, it is that it needs both pragmatism and flexibility to deal with the volatile and dynamic political scene in Hong Kong.

Instead of being tied by political imperatives, such as a chief executive of its own choosing, Beijing is likely to prefer much room for manoeuvre.

Eight years ago, Mr Woo might genuinely have believed that he could win the hearts and minds of voters through his ideas, vision and policies.

Now, both he and Mr Tang seem to have gained a deeper understanding of the limitation of personal endeavours in the pursuit of the post of chief executive.