The litmus test of weakness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 October, 2011, 12:00am


In a roller-coaster of events, Henry Tang Ying-yen, the former chief secretary who is widely tipped to be the favourite for the chief executive post, shocked the city earlier this month by cryptically admitting that he has made 'mistake' in his personal life, something about which, he said, he felt 'deeply remorseful and guilty'. [It was unclear from Tang's statement in Chinese whether he was admitting to one or more 'mistakes'.] A couple of days before the admission, Tang had dismissed as 'entertaining' media rumours of his involvement in an extramarital affair.

A prominent Tang supporter leapt to his defence by saying that political figures around the world, past and present, had made similar mistakes that had barely affected their places in history. The business leader privately explained he had in mind historical figures such as Dr Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong, who all had multiple partners but remained among history's giants.

That may well be true of some political figures of modern China. Some Western democratic societies are less tolerant of such behaviour, none more so than the United States, where prominent politicians seldom survive the maelstrom of public scrutiny and questioning arising from allegations of infidelity.

The fall from grace of some American politicians makes the point. Contrary to the permissive image of American society painted by Sex and the City-style movies and TV series, the winning formula of American politicians has always been to project the image of a clean, God-fearing, family-loving man (or woman), among other qualities.

The concept of monogamy is so deeply embedded in the ethos of puritan America that questions continue to be raised to this day, despite the presence of two Mormon presidential candidates, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, of whether America is ready for a national leader from that faith. Although Mormons stopped practising polygamy publicly since late 19th century, the idea of a president tolerant of taking multiple spouses is still irksome to many voters, especially women.

The list of high-flying US politicians who wrecked their political fortunes because of their involvement in sex scandals is lengthy and fraught with morals for today's hopefuls. Among them was senator Gary Hart, a presidential candidate in the 1980s, who was caught philandering with a model. Congressman Gary Condit admitted to an extramarital relationship in 2000 with a female intern that, tragically, was made more sensational by her disappearance and murder by another man.

At least two others saw their political careers come to abrupt ends over infidelity. Former senator John Edwards, the running mate of John Kerry in the 2004 campaign and a presidential candidate himself in the 2008 campaign, admitted fathering a child with his campaign filmmaker while his wife was dying of cancer, while Eliot Spitzer , a former governor of New York, admitted hiring expensive prostitutes.

The outcome is hardly surprising; voters can legitimately expect their leaders to be moral exemplars. Even though in their hearts they might accept that politicians are not above human frailty, once that public image - of a wholesome representative of the best that society can offer - is shattered, it is difficult for a fallen leader to regain trust.

As media attention is trained on all the facts, relevant or not, in such scandals, questions about the fidelity of a politician as a spouse inevitably morph into questions about his trustworthiness, integrity and ability to handle crises as a public figure.

One notable exception to this sorry trend in US politics is former president Bill Clinton, who, in spite of his extramarital affairs, survived impeachment on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of the course of justice. Note that this unusual acquittal involved a successful and charismatic president who presided over the longest peacetime economic expansion in recent US history, and is well known for his communication skills and ability to make a political comeback from near defeat.

In the case of Tang, judging from the precipitous fall in his popularity ratings, the public relations strategy of 'damage limitation' prescribed by his advisers - a laconic confession, coupled with the appearance of strong family support - has apparently failed to stem his ratings decline.

Once Tang's family-man image was punctured, his stonewalling in the face of persistent media questioning and the emergence of fresh reports suggesting infidelity has not quelled growing doubts about his suitability for the top job.

The fact is, Hong Kong shares many characteristics with other 'audience democracies' around the world. No one expects a politician to be without blemish. Yet, once confronted with allegations that cast doubts on one's integrity, lifestyle and suitability for high office, the candidate in question must answer these charges with directness, sincerity and transparency.

As the saying goes, 'you can run but you cannot hide'. The questions about Tang's character are evidently inhibiting his campaign, as he drifts from one stage-managed venue to another to show his concern with the young or the poor. His dodging of questions and inability to hold his own make his campaign hollow and unconvincing. Can public relations consultants and media handlers repair the damage where courage and truth appear to be wanting?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party