There's hope, yet, that Hong Kong's cabinet reshuffle may refresh the government

Alice Wu says whatever the 'real' reasons for the unexpected cabinet reshuffle last week, the addition of political veteran Lau Kong-wah may bring a needed shake-up

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 July, 2015, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 July, 2015, 9:02am

The halls of power in Hong Kong were hit by a thunderbolt last week with the sudden "removal" - that's the word used by the government - of two cabinet members. The government's emphasis that all hands remained on deck and, more importantly, its willingness to allow - even encourage - speculation to fly in all directions is most interesting.

Cabinet reshuffles are nothing new, and the reasons for them aren't mystifying. Except for replacements made in the event of death or severe illness, reshuffles are inherently politically charged - they are political decisions.

Reshuffles are made to "refresh" governments. With this government's new pledge to focus on livelihood and economic issues, it makes perfect sense. Nevertheless, officials handled the matter so poorly it seemed almost deliberate, as if they were inviting questions to be raised, with anonymous government sources so readily available to offer their two cents' worth.

Politics at all levels, from the party to district to city-wide, are, indeed, Lau's forte

Perhaps Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has taken heed of Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing's criticism of Leung's intention to pivot from political reform to livelihood issues as "impracticable". Forcing early retirement on Tsang's brother, three days after the Legco president talked about a government's need to harness political backing to overcome frictions in society, is as political as it gets.

Tsang Tak-sing, to his credit, exited gracefully. In his swansong statement, Tsang, our longest-serving home secretary since the handover, said he was "glad to retire" and expressed "confidence in my successor". No doubt he ended his tenure on a high note. Directing any nasty comments at this "fall guy" would seem exceedingly petty.

One wonders, however, how Beijing feels about being made the "Big Bad Wolf" again by anonymous sources that claimed it was Beijing's dissatisfaction with the ministers' performance that led to their departure. And how did that contribute to our understanding of "one country, two systems"?

All this drama has inevitably put Tsang's successor, Lau Kong-wah, in a difficult spot, to say the least.

Lau, however, does have something no one in government has - he is a career politician. The chief executive called it his "ample political experience". Lau is the only one out of this and previous administrations who has that in spades: he was a member of the United Democrats of Hong Kong (a predecessor of the Democratic Party), founded the community organisation Civic Force, and is now a member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. Lau has made the rounds before he entered government.

He has been the only one to have built his political career from the ground up - from the district board, district council to the legislative and executive councils. No one in the governing body has the votes he was able to harness for himself, his political party or political organisation. And he has not only tasted electoral triumph, but has also suffered moments of devastating defeat.

For the many who have been quick to dismiss him in this new role, they forget that Lau is someone who has made aligning political interests and running political campaigns his speciality. They forget also that, notwithstanding his failure to win a seat in the district council (second) constituency at the 2012 Legco elections, he has cut his teeth on such contests since 1998. Politics at all levels, from the party to district to city-wide, are, indeed, his forte.

The way he has handled the reshuffle and the measured statements he has given so far is a sign that he may very well disappoint his critics. For sure, he is one who will not repeat the mistakes of his predecessors. There will be no emotional outbursts, like those of some ministers before him. Lau is a political animal with decades of close-quarters political combat experience - and he may just do the job of "refreshing" the government.

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