The good wife

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am


There will be plenty of time and space to comment on the media circus surrounding No7 York Road and its ramifications on the political careers of more than just Henry Tang Ying-yen. But, for now, his wife, Lisa Kuo Yu-chin, has taken centre stage. There's apparently growing sympathy for Kuo, but whether that could spill over to help her husband's bid to be Hong Kong's chief executive has yet to be seen.

I'm tempted to say that it's ignorant to assume it will help. Yet, to dismiss it and say that any goodwill will be 'non-transferable' is to turn a blind eye to history. For decades, the world has seen pageants of political wives standing dutifully by their political men, and with effect, too.

Hillary Rodham Clinton came to the rescue of then governor Bill Clinton's presidential bid two decades ago - after he admitted 'causing pain' in his marriage, even before Monica Lewinsky came along. The New York Times defined that as 'a striking moment: she was saying that she was not reflexively standing by her man ... but was standing by him nevertheless'. Polling has shown, at least in the US, that a wife's reaction matters for a significant portion of the public as they decide between acceptance or rejection.

And it has been argued that the wife's role as her candidate-husband's character witness in the political playbook is a crucial defence against the character-assassination campaigns of rivals, increasingly used all over the world. Well, Kuo might have played her 'good wife' role perfectly last year when she and Tang went public with his extramarital activities, but by taking the rap in the latest controversy, she is much more than just a prop in a political drama.

Kuo has redefined the role of a candidate's wife in Hong Kong - breaking the mould of a wife as a mere accessory donned by their politician-husbands to build their image. She has had more of a voice than others before her, who were largely visible only in their support for charitable causes; they provided media photo opportunities, no more. Kuo is no fool. She knows as well as any one that she was allowed to 'talk' only to feed a sensational story.

The example of Betty Tung Chiu Hung-ping - who complained about what she felt to be the public's inclination to 'complain, complain, complain' - will probably forever be a lesson to other political wives: that is, avoid flak by speaking only when asked to, and say only the niceties that people want to hear.

And if we had once thought of Kuo as a victim, she made us rethink. By taking on her shoulders the blame for the illegal basement, she has tried to shield her husband.

It is interesting to see Kuo quietly driving her husband's campaign, which she surely knows is neither expected nor asked of a candidate's wife. While many things in politics can be orchestrated, one look at the Tang scandal is a reminder that coaching can only do so much.

Kuo doesn't just appear to have stepped up in her husband's campaign, she is becoming the campaign. And she has done so convincingly and seemingly with ease.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA