Donald Tsang

Whipping up a political whirlwind

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 August, 2006, 12:00am

It was a perfect summer storm before the customary August lull we have come to expect. This political typhoon drew life from a coincidental clashing of titans in an arena that had become lifeless. They clashed not with swords and spears but with words - hurled as barbs and, at other times, as gentle nuances.

The biggest contestant in physical terms was our last colonial governor, Chris Patten. His hard-to-miss frame cast a big shadow - in political terms - over the others. He came to wield his pen at book-signing functions, but bored spectators bayed for him to enter the ring. He obliged, the warrior that he still is, all the while protesting that he preferred to watch from the sidelines instead of engaging in battle.

But once in the ring, he found himself having to fire off words on everything from a sales tax for Hong Kong to greater democracy, which he had championed during his governorship. He did not think a sales tax was desirable, pointing to how, when he was boss here, we got on splendidly without one.

That drew fire from novice fighter Henry Tang Ying-yen who, as financial secretary, is the chief propagandist for a sales tax. Eyes flashing, he spat out words accusing Lord Patten of 'patting his butt and leaving' after the 1997 handover - having done nothing to prepare Hong Kong to fight the Asian financial crisis that hit soon after.

There were no nuances there from Mr Tang, just the folly of a foot soldier who fired his last shot at the start of battle. Mindful that he was dealing with a lightweight - both in physique and political prowess - Lord Patten toyed, saying he did not even know Mr Tang well.

Then he went in for the kill, noting that it was Mr Tang's current boss, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen who - as financial secretary at the time - had been responsible for Hong Kong's finances. The nuance was that, if anyone had left Hong Kong ill-armed, it was Mr Tsang.

But it was the issue of democracy that had the spectators sitting on the edge of their seats. How would this crusader continue to fight an old battle he had never really won? And how had the entry of new fighters changed the old battleground? Lord Patten did not surprise anyone. What the spectators heard was a worn message: Hong Kong needs democracy; should have had it a long time ago; the British let us down; but the fight must go on. Fans cheered, foes booed, but the message was dutifully repeated throughout his stay.

Lord Patten's former deputy, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, had in the past stayed on the sidelines while he braved the battlefield. Suddenly, after all these years, she has claimed - and inexplicably won - Joan of Arc status in continuing the fight.

And, out of nowhere, there has sprung another unlikely contender for that crown - former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. She is best remembered not for championing democracy, but for her deeply unpopular spying bills to protect national security.

These two titans have already clashed, with Mrs Ip accusing Mrs Chan of all talk and no action in producing a democracy plan.

Lord Patten has left the battlefield, Mrs Chan is holidaying ahead of the next round, and Mrs Ip is fast losing her novelty-factor edge. But the August lull will soon be over, and when these two clash again, the chief executive will be drawn unavoidably into the ring. Mr Tsang will find himself having to do battle with one hand tied behind his back by Beijing.

Michael Chugani is editor-in-chief of ATV English News and Current Affairs