The View
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Our next Chief Executive should be someone from outside government

‘The skill set of the potential candidates is too narrow – they have all taken the Queen’s shilling and the President’s iron rice bowl, and have little experience of making a profit’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 1:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 10:46pm

Speculation about the new Chief Executive is at fever pitch, just a short three months away from election day – for we barely know who the candidates might be.

We know that person will have to be like Janus, the mythical two-faces being. One to look at Beijing and one Hongkong; or one to understand the business sector and one the social welfare of the Hong Kong people. Where is that person?

The experience of the current CE, Leung Chun-ying, might lead one to wonder why a talented and well-placed individual would want the job? He did not help his case by playing a bad hand badly yet the constant criticism has cost CY a great deal in professional reputation and in his private life. The desire for political power can flow in the blood stream, like malaria, without regard for personal cost. As a former political candidate myself, I know that political life can be costly, life-changing and career-destroying. There are no prizes in coming second.

Beijing needs someone cognisant of their need for a loyal, stable and prosperous Hong Kong

Beijing has tried hard to give us the leader we want. Uncle Tung seemed to fit the bill but he was unable to shoulder the burdens of public office. Donald seemed Hong Kong’s choice but he missed the change in the social tide as the ordinary Hongkonger was slowly crushed under the high rent cartels. CY’s misjudgement was to take on the people, in the process generating a generation of young, globally minded, independent political activists (not to be confused with independence activists). Being Chief Executive is as much, if not more, about using the carrot rather than the stick.

Make no mistake; the goal of the Communist Party in China is to remain paramount but they are also pragmatic enough not to fight every battle. Once, when I lived in Beijing the first freezes arrived in late October. The response to the call for government central heating to be turned on was negative – it is turned on from 15th November each year regardless of sub-zero temperatures. Yet after three days of louder and angrier calls to the local radio phone-ins - the heating came on early.

Beijing can’t afford another disappointment in its struggle to find the right Chief Executive. It would be intolerable for Hong Kong to have grown under 155 years of British rule only to have the city decline under a mere 20 years of Chinese rule.

Why otherwise encourage a retired judge with few qualifications to lead if not to flush out the candidates? It worked. There rose a flock of senior civil servants, and John Tsang Chun-wah and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (both above the normal retirement age), and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Ironically they are all strong products of the British administration – and a very good training it was too.

Reforming Hong Kong’s economy will be the key priority for the next CE and here John Tsang would be the obvious choice. Not because of his well-hidden skills as Financial Secretary but because he boasts the best of all political attributes; people like him. Regina seems unable to shake off her enthusiasm for the harsh security measure, Article 23, which caused the unpopularity that ended her government career in 2003.

Carrie Lam has not yet resigned as Chief Secretary and yet may be favoured by Beijing but she is tainted by the current administration. With senior civil servants distracted by the CE race, it is no wonder that CY complains that he has too much work to do!

The skill set of the potential candidates is too narrow – they have all taken the Queen’s shilling and the President’s iron rice bowl, and have little experience of making a profit, managing a balance sheet, or paying their housing costs. Maybe it’s just that civil servants are the only people with the contacts to make themselves known to Beijing and to have a following on the Election Committee?

We need a wider net to bring in new and bright candidates with different experience. Perhaps an experienced, non-civil servant politico like Jasper Tsang Yok-sing? A business talent (from outside the fat cat families); or someone with a track record in the social or environmental sector, like Christine Loh Kung-wai?

Beijing needs someone cognisant of their need for a loyal, stable and prosperous Hong Kong and that can only come with a leader who will properly advocate for the Hong Kong people. It’s an awful job – but then again, the fringe benefits are excellent.

Richard Harris is an investment manager, writer and broadcaster – is a former U.K. Parliamentary candidate and has lived in Hong Kong for nearly half a century

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