Throwing down the gauntlet
As the chief executive race hots up, with Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a former president of the Legislative Council, dropping strong hints that she is contemplating a run, the mainland official responsible for Hong Kong affairs took the opportunity of a visit by a delegation of pro-Beijing trade unionists on July 11 to spell out the criteria for the next chief executive of Hong Kong.
For all those avidly watching the race, the pronouncements of Wang Guangya deserve careful examination.
It is no accident that on July 12, Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po, Beijing's de facto mouthpiece, ran an editorial elaborating on Wang's remarks, stressing that his remarks were 'not casual talk' but a 'purposive' view based on the summary of Hong Kong's '14 years of experience after the reunification'. The Wen Wei Po editorial was reproduced in part by the English-language China Daily, indicating clearly that a deliberate and well-orchestrated effort was being made to explain to the Hong Kong people, including all the chief executive hopefuls, what the central authorities require of the new chief.
The three criteria - love of the country and of Hong Kong, a very high capacity for governance, and broad acceptability by the people of Hong Kong - are nothing new. In 2007, when Jia Qinglin, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, met a delegation of Hong Kong compatriots, he made similar points: the chief executive of Hong Kong needs to meet three criteria - love of the country and of Hong Kong, support for the Basic Law, and the capacity to govern.
An important difference this time round is that the 'capacity for governance' has been elevated to a 'very high capacity for governance'. This, along with elaboration by Wen Wei Po that 'love of the country and of Hong Kong is the precondition, capacity for governance is the key, while social acceptability is the foundation', suggests that Beijing has come to recognise that the key attributes are the ability to lead and broad acceptability to the people.
This is hardly surprising, as it is inconceivable that any chief executive candidate would profess to be anything but patriotic. This leaves the capacity for governance and public acceptability the key differentiating qualities. The closing paragraphs of the China Daily commentary, translated from the Wen Wei Po editorial, lend weight to this view. 'The capacity to govern is the key quality expected of the chief executive by the central government as well as by the Hong Kong society simply because the job is extremely difficult,' it says.
It would seem that the papers, or the Beijing officials speaking behind them, share the same insight as this column has been endeavouring to impress on its readers: as the editorial put it, 'As for broad social acceptance, it is much harder to sustain popular support during one's term in office as chief executive than to gain it in the election process. That will depend on how well the job is done.'
Another of Wang's remarks worth our reflection is his comment that Hong Kong's chief is a 'representative figure'. As someone who loves the country and Hong Kong, he or she ought to be an epochal figure simultaneously representative of the country and of the very special personality of Hong Kong.
Given the 'purposive' nature of Wang's remarks, the inevitable questions are: what is the purpose of these explanations that are nothing short of a carefully crafted policy statement? Is there any hidden agenda other than clarifying to Hong Kong people Beijing's expectations of the new chief?
I would suggest that one of Beijing's purposes is to screen out some, if not all, of the current, 'hot' candidates by making clear its tough requirements. Note what Wen Wei Po and China Daily say of the three criteria: 'The three principles form an organic condition that must be met completely.'
Beijing has no doubt noted that the increasingly wobbly performance of Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, long presumed heir apparent, has led more opportunists to enter the fray to try their luck.
Fan enjoys high popularity ratings. But as she herself repeatedly acknowledges, her age, health and lack of hands-on government experience are grave drawbacks.
Leung Chun-ying, the Executive Council convenor, continues to try very hard. But his popularity ratings remain low by all accounts. Like Fan, he lacks hands-on government experience. Despite his frequent attempts to distance himself from the current administration, he can hardly avoid taking some responsibility for its poor performance; he must own up, too, to the fact that he has not been able to exert any real influence on policymaking in Hong Kong despite his high position.
As for Tang, as the second-in-command he can arguably beat his rivals in government experience. But his repeated gaffes, his clear lack of political acumen and communication skills, his plummeting popularity and his habitual avoidance of tough issues hardly provide convincing evidence for a 'very high capacity for governance'.
So the intriguing question, and one that stands out, is: does Bejing wish to disqualify one, two, or all three of the so-called front runners?
While diehard kingmakers and timeservers continue to sing the praises of the three, there should be no lack of smart Hongkongers who can read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party