The media and people of Hong Kong must frame debate for its next leader
Congratulations: Beijing, through Wang Guangya, the mainland's top man in charge of Hong Kong, has realised that a chief executive without popular support is more of a dead duck than a lame duck as far as being able to run this complex, cosmopolitan, deeply Chinese yet international, traditional yet modern city.
Wang, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told visiting trade unionists in Beijing that: 'The future chief executive should enjoy a relatively high degree of acceptance among the general public, who should feel that the person being elected is not bad.' He did not spell out how that wide degree of acceptance might be accomplished.
The Hong Kong media should help him, and this newspaper, in particular, can take a leading role - with the aid of the Hong Kong public - in shaping the debate to ensure that the next chief executive meets the test of public approval.
A paper like the South China Morning Post can go beyond its regular news and feature coverage, to identify the issues that will face the new chief executive; draw up a broad list of potential candidates; seek their views on the main issues, and how they would address them in practical terms; and arrange public, preferably televised, debates between the top candidates.
This paper, known for its serious, non-partisan reporting covering the widest range of issues important to Hong Kong, from the price of vegetables and the cost of living to the quality of housing, education, the growing income gap, relations with the mainland, the performance of the government, legislative council debates, the stock market, business and trade, Hong Kong's competitiveness and role in the world, is well-placed to start the debate.
The campaign can be done in co-operation with a leading independent opinion poll.
Polls on their own, without burning issues or debate to frame the questions, are too static. Newspapers offer the first draft of history, and reporters and commentators, in the heart of the community and alive to the grander issues of Hong Kong's relations with the mainland and its place in the world, can set the framework. But it really should be the Hong Kong people who have their say; she or he is their chief executive, not Beijing's.
There is growing disillusionment with the present system. Executive councillor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung acknowledged in this paper two weeks ago that Hong Kong is 'haunted by a crisis of governance. Whoever is in government, and whatever the government does, suffers from the 'original sin' of lacking the democratic legitimacy conferred by universal suffrage.' The Professional Commons and its chairman, Albert Lai Kwong-tak, offered an election platform 'to reconfigure our core values, to expand our economic horizon, and to attain a decent living standard for all' as well as ensuring that the next chief executive is not elected on empty promises.
Cheung is correct in lamenting that 'our media and commentators appear only interested in guessing which horse Beijing will back ... There is no public process for prospective contenders for the top post to engage the whole community in extensive policy debate that would give society some political consensus on the next steps, post election.'
One of the main difficulties has been Beijing's suspicion of a plot to undermine its sovereignty over Hong Kong. For years, it was said, Beijing feared that Britain might try to regain possession of the territory through the back door. Anyone who spent any time in Hong Kong would understand how ludicrous this idea was. The British government from at least 1980 could not wait to leave Hong Kong; Hong Kong patriots, most of them with British passports, ruled the territory, but often clashed with London as they fought for Hong Kong interests.
Beijing's suspicions were reinforced by fellow-travellers, who were its and Hong Kong's very worst friends. They sowed suspicion by claiming that pro-democracy supporters were not loyal to the motherland. The democrats also failed to proclaim loudly enough that they were good Chinese patriots, but Hong Kong loyalists first.
All this has caused the chief executive to spend most of his time looking over his shoulder to keep Beijing happy rather than having the guts to stand up for Hong Kong, against Beijing if necessary.
It is time to move forward, with thanks to Wang and with the help of the people of Hong Kong. The new chief executive will be chosen by 1,200 people, a mere 0.017 per cent of the population, which is a sad reflection of the state of democracy in Hong Kong. They need help.
The first thing is to identify the issues and to get the people of Hong Kong to rank them. Next, a long list of candidates should be drawn up, with new names and fresh ideas, not just from the gang of three.
Then let the debates begin. The old front runners may resist justifying themselves, but it is good for them to be challenged on their policies' principles and details so that there will be fewer nasty surprises when one of them actually takes over.
The committee of 1,200 electors should surely be grateful for help and clarification from the people of Hong Kong in guiding their choice. And the new chief executive would know that she or he had the backing of the community in trying to find a safe way through the maze of hot topics confronting Hong Kong up to 2017.
Kevin Rafferty is author of City on the Rocks: Hong Kong's Uncertain Future