Nowhere man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 January, 2010, 12:00am

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is now more or less officially a lame duck chief executive. He may be just midway through his second term, but Beijing has indicated it neither wants to sack him nor offer him its full backing.

At the beginning of the week Tsang donned his trademark fixed grin and warm clothing to make his way to Beijing to report on his activities. The grin stayed in place while Premier Wen Jiabao publicly chided him over the emergence of 'deep rooted conflicts' in Hong Kong and urged him to be more effective in tackling them. Then, as if to confirm just how out of his depth he is, Tsang told reporters that the premier was referring to economic matters, not the current row over constitutional reform.

The chief executive grasped at the comfort offered by some kinder remarks by President Hu Jintao but appears not to understand what's going on. The Chinese leadership simply cannot afford to ditch the second of Hong Kong's first two chief executives. They had no choice but to dispense with the services of Tung Chee-hwa but cannot contemplate the loss of face involved in admitting that his successor is also not up to the job.

Therefore, Tsang will stay but the central government has made it clear that he is there on sufferance and they are determined to ensure that his unpopularity is not allowed to reflect on their own standing; indeed they may even see some advantages in allowing the chief executive to dangle while the more assured leadership in Beijing keeps its distance.

This leaves Tsang in a truly excruciating position, but one he could alleviate by making the smallest effort to satisfy his domestic constituency rather than focus on his bosses in Beijing. The chief executive's standing in opinion polls has now reached the depths of his predecessor and, as criticism mounts, he retreats further away from any situation in which dialogue with critics is possible and reacts with a kind of sullen anger towards those who disagree with him.

Tsang's only real constituency consists of his fellow bureaucrats, from whose ranks he emerged. Instead of bringing new blood into government, he increasingly turns towards the bureaucratic cadre to fill posts which were supposed to be occupied by outsiders. Even within the upper levels of the bureaucracy there are some officials already looking anxiously towards the successor regime and wondering how they can distance themselves from the bad odour surrounding the current one.

It may be argued that Tsang has a firm group of 'pro-government' supporters in the legislature and on district councils. But, at the centre of this alleged support base is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, whose senior members still see Tsang as a colonial re-tread and support him only because the central government tells them to do so. None of them are losing much sleep over his current discomfort.

Then there is the usual ragbag of 'allies' from places such as the Liberal Party; but the truth is that they are about as reliable as a three dollar coin. They simply gravitate towards whoever is in power and posses sharp antennae that tells them when the mandate of heaven is slipping.

Ironically, Tsang had the chance to reach out to the democrats when he assumed office and could have found some comfort there. But from day one he made it clear that all their elected representatives were to be ignored. He deliberately missed every similar opportunity, presumably thinking that his masters would not approve of any move in this direction.

This leaves Tsang isolated in Government House, timid about taking any kind of firm action and doggedly pursuing plans that are favoured in Beijing in the hope that somehow this will make him a successful chief executive.

But a successful leader cannot be little more than a conduit and the Hong Kong system seems to be institutionally designed to confound the possibility of success in this job. As this becomes increasingly clear the wonder is that the man at the centre of this conundrum is doing his utmost to preserve the system.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur