From symbol to figurehead

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2006, 12:00am

Cynics may ridicule the so-called 'Anson Chan effect', saying the bubble of her political appeal burst on Saturday when the public rally drew a less-than-impressive turnout.

But it's too early to get cynical. It looks certain that the former chief secretary's dip into mass politics heralds significant changes on the political scene before and after next year's chief executive election. This was her second such event, after the December 4 rally last year.

The heralding of changes is not related to any unveiling of plans she may have to run in the election. She has given no hints, one way or another, and the guessing game is still on.

But her participation in the July 1 march prompted some pundits to speculate that she looks more likely to stand.

There is no doubt that she has distanced herself further from the political establishment, moving one step closer to the opposition camp and the general citizenry.

Pictures of her hand-in-hand with pan-democratic legislators earlier last week, and in Saturday's procession, tell it all.

That march marked the beginning of a new phase of her political career. The days of her playing the role of a symbolic - at times invisible - leader seem to have gone. Now she faces difficult decisions about her next step.

Mrs Chan appears to have decided that she must use her prestige and influence as a catalyst for change in the city's democratic development.

This is despite the fact that her deeds and words have provided more ammunition to her critics, and will continue to do so.

She left the weekend march before it reached Government Headquarters, reflecting a degree of restraint about how far she should go.

The last thing she wants is to be seen as the opposition leader vis-a-vis the administration that she served for decades.

Similarly, she did not want to be seen as confronting the central government - as she put pressure on Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to lobby Beijing for universal suffrage. She was quick to deny any such intention, after her claims that people had lost confidence in Beijing landed her in hot water last week.

Walking a tightrope above the unsettled waters of mainland-Hong Kong politics has proved to be a dangerous act. Conspiracy theories about her motives have already surfaced in the pro-Beijing media. Harsher words against her may follow.

Like it or not, she now faces the risk of being grouped into the 'they' camp by the administration, its friendly allies and mainland authorities.

The political environment will become more strained as the chief executive election draws near.

That will make it increasingly difficult for her to find room to manoeuvre between the establishment and opposition camps.

As expectations grow about her political role, she will face stronger lobbying from her supporters to take on Mr Tsang in the election.

Refusing to do so without strong justification could make her vulnerable to criticism that she lacks commitment, at best, or has betrayed the cause of democracy, at worst.

But running against Mr Tsang with zero chance of success is equally unpalatable. It would also carry a huge political cost, such as exposing her to the factional politics of the democratic camp.

Regardless of her next step and ultimate endgame, Mrs Chan should understand that it is no longer a realistic option for her to bask in the lofty image of the 'conscience of Hong Kong', as she has done since the handover.

The path of her march from being a symbol and voice of the people - to a figurehead for the pro-democratic force - will be fraught with uncertainties that could bring about both risks and opportunities.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large