Twists and turns may see new hat in the ring

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2012, 12:00am

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'Storms may arise from a clear sky; bad luck may arrive overnight.'

This Chinese proverb is only too true of chief executive hopeful Henry Tang Ying-yen, who has been plunged into scandal over his 'underground palace'.

Tang filed his nominations yesterday. But with more than half the people in the latest poll asking him to quit, this 'storm rises from a clear sky' scenario confronts Beijing with a dilemma.

Tsang Yok-sing, chairman of the Legislative Council and founding chairman of what was then the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, has added fuel to the political intrigue by saying he is 'seriously' considering whether to throw his hat into the ring.

Over the weekend, the talk of the town swiftly shifted from Tang's problems to how serious Tsang is about running, as well as Beijing's latest assessment of this seemingly messy election campaign.

Last Friday - just one day after Tang blamed his wife for building a 2,400 sq ft illegal basement at a family house - he visited the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, where he had an hour-long meeting with its director, Peng Qinghua.

Peng accepted Tang's explanation and gave him the green light to continue his campaign.

That same day, trusted Beijing heavyweight Tsang suggested he might run because he saw 'a dramatic turn' in the election.

A coincidence? Tsang, who is regarded as the 'mastermind' of Hong Kong's pro-Beijing camp, is well known for being prudent and cautious. He is also known for being witty, smart and strong willed. It is unlikely he could be easily persuaded by some 'friends' in Tang's camp, as he claimed, simply to keep Leung Chun-ying from benefiting from Tang's meltdown.

Without a nod from Beijing, it's unlikely Tsang will jump into the contest.

Ng Hong-man, an 87-year-old veteran Beijing loyalist who knows Tsang well, gave us a clue. He said he believed Tsang's job was to 'fend off' other 'ambitious' politicians who may consider joining the fray. 'The odds that Tsang will actually run are slim,' Ng said.

The Post reported last Friday that the last thing Beijing wants is chaos in Hong Kong. It wants to avoid the public spectacle of a guessing game about who will run as die-hard Tang supporters frantically search for a possible replacement.

From the outset, Beijing has wanted to see a 'gentleman's fight'. But first it turned into a smear campaign rather than a serious debate over the candidates' platforms. Now it threatens to become a 'hunt for an alternative' frenzy.

Beijing may prefer not to make a move, at least for a while. For if there is to be a replacement, it will be Beijing's choice, not the business elites telling Beijing who they prefer.

With Tsang's reputation as a capable leader of the Legislative Council, a pro-establishment icon and someone the pan-democrats find easy to communicate with, initial feedback from these sectors has been positive.

There is, however, one major hurdle for Tsang - the long-held suspicion that he is a member of the Chinese Communist Party. And Tsang's latest answer is as ambiguous as ever: 'I will give you a full answer when I make a final decision [to run].'

Whether Hong Kong people will accept a Chinese Communist Party member as chief executive, it may be too early to tell. But for Beijing, he is a comfortable alternative because, in addition to being an acceptable backup, he is an acceptable choice to the disturbed Tang camp.

'I want to unite the pro-establishment camp again,' Tsang said. 'I certainly don't want to see smearing become our election culture, nor a serious split among the pro-establishment forces.'

This is obviously Beijing's wish, too. But Beijing has another concern about Tsang. His candidacy may eventually lead to a heated debate about party politics, given Tsang's strong DAB background.

Beijing has long refused to allow party politics to be part of the chief executive race. Its position is that the chief executive's power comes from Beijing, which has to anoint the winner after the election.

He or she should be accountable to all Hong Kong people and the central government, not a specific party. The Basic Law does not impose any restrictions. But the government prohibits such link when enacting the chief executive election ordinance in 2001, citing the need for the chief executive to remain impartial.

Beijing definitely wants to see a clean two-horse race without damaging the unity of the pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong. But that seems to be just wishful thinking now.