Tsang's big moment
Many would agree that former US president Jimmy Carter is a better man than he was a president. Carter's failed battles with the bureaucracy cost him dearly, including abysmal approval ratings and a presidency marked by its ineptitude - both of which sound vaguely familiar. We have our very own Jimmy Carter in Hong Kong: former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.
We rarely spend much time thinking about people out of power and, to his credit, Tung has stayed out of the limelight. But, last week, his 'private trip' to Taiwan put him back in the news. It is difficult to believe that he made the trip without the blessing of the current administration. And it would be even more incredible if, as a vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Tung flew to Taiwan and dined with the honorary chairman of the Kuomintang, Lien Chan, and Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of the Straits Exchange Foundation (the island's highest representation body for talks with the mainland) without purpose and without having been given a green light from Beijing.
What results from those meals may not, in the end, amount to much, let alone a Nobel Prize since any power shift back to the Democratic Progressive Party would most probably see cross-strait relations go right back to square one. But there should be no doubt about the significance of them coinciding with the financial secretary's announcement of the forming of the first Hong Kong-Taiwan quasi-official channel - the Hong Kong-Taiwan Economic and Cultural Co-operation and Promotion Council. Tung played a significant role in forming a channel for meaningful dialogue between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Some may have argued that Tung was miscast in his role as chief executive. But, as the bearer of a gesture of good faith to Taiwan, he may just have been the right person, given his business and family links to the island. And he may have acted at the right time, with cross-strait relations having thawed and the fact that he is no longer in office. The stars were aligned, so to speak, and Tung has found a post-chief-executive role that may well give him a more flattering anchor in history.
Let's hope Tung's successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, is not already thinking about what he will do after his remaining two years in office because, frankly, we cannot afford two chief executives who are better men than they were leaders. Fighting currency speculators may secure Tsang a spot in the history books as an outstanding financial secretary but, as chief executive, he has yet to find his place. Fortunately for Tsang, there is still a little time, though his options are limited. Achieving political conciliation by pushing for constitutional reform may be the only thing left. And, like the recent and badly needed rain that brought some relief to the drought-stricken southwestern regions of the country, a solution to the political gridlock would sate the overwhelming public frustration over constitutional deadlock.
Conditions may not be ideal, especially with all the by-election verbiage, but the mere existence of a 'more moderate' group, the Alliance for Universal Suffrage, means that the history of the 2005 impasse does not have to repeat itself. Though the alliance and the government may not yet be on same page, that doesn't necessarily mean it can't happen.
But a bona fide intent for dialogue must come from Tsang himself. If the alliance is genuine about making progress, then compromises can be made. And, just as cloud seeding to ease drought-hit areas requires that natural conditions are met, so Beijing must see that opportunities for compromise are rare and ramifications for a missed chance can be devastating.
The clouds may be forming and Tsang must be allowed the wiggle room he needs. And, like Tung in Taiwan, Tsang will need Beijing's support; the alliance must recognise that and be ready to make accommodations. Second chances don't come along often. Carter and Tung had to wait. Tsang, for everyone's sake - including Beijing's - cannot wait for a third chance.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA