The bigger war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 June, 2010, 12:00am

The so-called debate of the century between Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee over political reform is finally behind us. As expected, it was an issue-based debate, with both sides presenting their arguments. We didn't expect much of a performance from the chief executive. But, still, he stepped up to the challenge to explain to the public how Hong Kong's political system should progress. It was like trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But, in the end, he lost even more. Put plainly, he had his hands tied; but even if it had been a free-sparring contest, he would still have lost.

Eu clearly showed her debating skills were miles ahead of Tsang's throughout the event. She seemed to have gone through a lot of training to prepare for the debate. Her performance was brilliant; her body language, her speeches, and even the tears in her eyes; everything was perfectly scripted.

Strictly speaking, Eu didn't really deliver a stellar performance that wowed the whole of Hong Kong. She won hands down mostly because her opponent's performance was nowhere near in the same league. When it comes to having to improvise and respond on the spot, Tsang is no match for Eu.

Judging from her performance, it's not an exaggeration to name her Hong Kong's best 'political actress', while Tsang came across as unprepared because he appeared nervous and wasn't as polished. This proves that politicians who have had a baptism of fire in direct elections have better 'acting skills' than government officials.

In hindsight, if the government had allowed in a live audience, who most likely would have heckled Tsang, it might have earned him a few sympathy points from the public.

Tsang's performance seemed to pick up towards the end of the debate; a University of Hong Kong poll showed that public support simultaneously shot up from 5 per cent to 20 per cent. But the battle was already lost.

During the debate, Eu insisted on abolishing all Legislative Council functional constituencies while Tsang firmly maintained that the present constitutional reform package was the best we could ask for from Beijing. Politically, Tsang may be more conservative than Eu, but he was merely being practical.

Another significant point is that Eu never answered two fundamental questions. First, how would she rally support from 40 lawmakers to pass her proposed package? And, second, why had she, a lawyer, disregarded the spirit of the law? The government proposal is within the legal framework set down by the National People's Congress.

All in all, Tsang played it straight and didn't try to punch below the belt. He might not have delivered a dazzling performance that deserved a standing ovation, but he acted honourably. Looking closely, you will see that he intends to use the five proposed district council functional seats in Legco to expand the space for direct election.

On top of that, we have seen former secretary for justice, Elsie Leung Oi-sie, perform a U-turn to support the Democrats' reform package, saying it was not against the Basic Law. Putting the two together, it's not hard to see what Tsang was really trying to do.

The debate was not simply about winning or losing. Eu might have scored on her debating skills and glamour, but Tsang only wanted to use the opportunity to explain the principles and spirit behind the government's reform package.

It really doesn't matter if the public thought Eu was better than Tsang in terms of their overall performance. The war is not lost if people recognised what the chief executive said is true.

Tsang and his administration have pulled out all the stops to push our electoral system forward. He has made Hong Kong history by being the first leader ever to campaign for government policies and challenge the opposition to an open debate.

Mark my words: the chief executive might have lost a battle, but he certainly won a great war, not for himself, but for the people of Hong Kong.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator