Lunch leaves a bitter taste for Henry Tang
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It sounds like a storm in a teacup. But the political swell whipped up following claims that Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen interfered with a Legislative Council industrial functional constituency election say something about the oddities of this small-circle election.
Mr Tang, who abandoned his family knitwear business to become a full-time minister in 2002, was accused of canvassing support for a Legco aspirant during a lunch with leaders of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association (CMA).
According to a newspaper report about a letter from a group of anonymous, self-proclaimed association members, Mr Tang was said to have lobbied discreetly for Lam Tai-fai at the lunch in his official residence. Both Mr Tang and association leaders have denied the claims. The Legco election was not discussed, they said.
Mr Lam, who is a top executive in Mr Tang's knitwear business and a newly elected vice-president of the association, is widely tipped to run against the incumbent, Lui Ming-wah, in the September election. Dr Lui, who has represented the association in Legco since 1998, was left in the dark about the lunch.
He said: 'It will be fine if he [Mr Lam] is elected. What if I'm re-elected? Should I support him [Mr Tang]? Mr Tang is a clever man. He wouldn't do a stupid thing.' Promoting his own experience, he questioned the wisdom of choosing 'a freshman'.
He said he believed that the people behind the anonymous complaint cared about the association and did not want it to become a political party. 'The CMA is a traditional organisation,' Dr Lui said. 'Our members dare to speak up when they find anything unjust, to uphold the association's reputation.'
Mr Lam heads a newly established political concern group under the CMA, which represents a major initiative to increase its political influence with mainland and Hong Kong authorities.
Judging from the categorical denial by Mr Tang and the CMA leaders, it looks unlikely that the chief secretary did speak favourably of Mr Lam's potential candidacy, never mind canvassing support for him.
Association leaders who were present, or members who learned about the lunch, could, however, be forgiven for linking it with the intensifying behind-the-scenes political canvassing as the election draws near.
Clearly, this is because inter-personal relationships and bonds of political friendship carry more weight than ideas and performance in an election with a small electorate. As a result, it is more difficult for the public to monitor the sector-based election.
It is not surprising that Mr Tang's lunch with leading CMA members fuelled speculation about infighting between Dr Lui and Mr Lam, and their respective supporters.
Given Mr Tang's political experience, he must have been aware of the potential rivalry between Mr Lam and Dr Lui when he decided to host a dinner with the industrialist body.
He probably chose his discussion topics carefully, and would have been wary about causing any controversy. Yet he could not have known the fact that Dr Lui was not on the guest list would become a topic of speculation amid claims of political canvassing for Mr Lam.
Mr Tang had a point when he argued that he would not be able to attend any social functions in future if his lunch with CMA leaders was seen as electioneering.
The plain reality, though, is that, given his status, he will be seen as a kingmaker in a functional constituency election where connections count.
Widely known as aspiring to the post of chief executive, Mr Tang must now have a better grasp of the risks of getting involved in the factional rivalries within certain functional constituencies - and, worse, of being seen to be taking sides.
Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.