Hong Kong may just see a real contest for its top job

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2011, 12:00am


There is an expression in English which is rather vulgar, yet at the same time so useful, that it has generated a bowdlerised version. It is used to describe a situation which has become chaotic and where the responsibility is scattering widely, covering everyone within range. In its polite form, it reads: 'The proverbial hits the fan.' Recent developments in the run-up to the 2012 chief executive election have stood the expression on its head. The credit for this, if such there be, belongs mainly to Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai.

I have said before that, in my view, Fan herself would make a strong candidate for the position. It is small wonder that, for several months, she has topped local opinion polls asking people who they would support for chief executive. She clearly toyed with the idea of running, saying she would take a few months to think about it, and, in the meantime, commenting freely on a range of political issues.

In the past two weeks, Fan has swerved sharply away from the idea of running herself, and instead has indicated that she would fully support Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen. Given that Fan and Tang were two of the co-founders of the Co-operative Resources Centre (a political group that later morphed into the Liberal Party), it is no surprise to find they are still politically close now. But what did raise some eyebrows were the caveats that Fan attached to her endorsement.

First, she made clear she would review her decision not to run if Tang failed to come forward. For most people, this would have been the first inkling that Tang - long regarded as a front runner - might not stand. Inevitably, there would be speculation about what skeletons there might be in his closet that an election campaign could bring to light, or, alternatively, that he might not have secured the 'mandate from heaven' - support from the central government.

The second comment she made was that he needed to improve his communication skills, something she felt the government in general was poor at. Bearing in mind that Tang has held a senior ministerial position ever since the system was introduced in 2002, this might be thought to be quite a lacuna.

Fan's qualified endorsement also needs to be seen in the context of other developments in recent weeks. First, Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying has stated on the record that, at an appropriate time, he will resign from office and run for chief executive. No ambiguity there. Moreover, Leung has been making inroads into public consciousness, and the most recent polls have shown him picking up support. The same polls show Tang trailing.

Second, some prominent figures normally seen as supporters of Tang have been strongly pushing the idea that there should be only one pro-establishment candidate, that there should not be a contested election between 'acceptable' candidates. In other words, the Election Committee should wait until Beijing has made up its mind and made clear who it backed, then vote accordingly.

I said recently in this column that such a process would be the political kiss of death for whoever became chief executive, because in order to function effectively he would also need to secure the support of Hong Kong people in an open and transparent manner. Otherwise, he might 'win' the election, but then spend five years struggling in office.

The message seems to have got through to Tang's team. The latest signals are that he will confirm on the record that he, too, will shortly step down in order to run. Given a probable runner from the democratic camp, that will give us at least three candidates who accept the need to publicly prove themselves to the Hong Kong community.

So things are heating up and, just possibly, heading in the right direction. We could even end up with an actual election. And for spreading the merits of this approach, we should give a good measure of the credit to Fan.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk