Why no one really has what it takes to become Hong Kong’s next leader

Yonden Lhatoo argues that the job of the city’s next chief executive will be so demanding that all the big names being floated so far may not be up to the task

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 3:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 5:53pm

One of those unforgettable moments in Hollywood history is the scene in the 1990s dark comedy, Addams Family Values, when the perpetually morose Wednesday Addams makes a supreme effort to crack a smile for everyone’s benefit at summer camp. A very young Christina Ricci plays the role to perfection, appearing to force every facial muscle into unfamiliar contractions to produce something so fraudulently sincere that it ends up terrifying everyone. It’s brilliant.

It also makes me think about Hong Kong’s looming leadership election, and the relevance of something as elementary and natural as the act of smiling in what will be a very difficult battle for hearts and minds, as clichéd as it sounds.

Take the candidacy of lawmaker and former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, for example, as she tries to convince the city that she’s the best person for the job of chief executive. Ip has the administrative and political chops to meet the challenge, but what about the emotional quotient?

When I sat down with her for a chat last week, she came across as a sincere and deeply motivated contender, proposing a basket of practical and concrete solutions to some of Hong Kong’s most pressing problems. But when discussing the importance of popularity and the need to make an emotional connection with the public, “playing nice” took a back seat to her trademark tough talk.

Watch: Regina Ip takes questions on her leadership bid

“I don’t think we should turn an election of such importance into a smiling contest,” she said.

Ip is a highly divisive figure, but the person being held up as a foil to her, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is no better in that regard. It’s no secret that Lam is disliked among administrative officers in the civil service. Her critics see her as a cold and arrogant hardliner, and consider Ip to be a better boss, actually.

‘Clash of tai-tais’ expected in Hong Kong leadership contest

Apart from the fact that Lam, as the No 2 government official, has been directly or indirectly involved in every policy that outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is attacked for, she also seems to have outdated notions about leadership in these troubled times.

“We are not trained to please everybody. We are not even trained to please anybody,” she said in a telling speech back in March. “Our mission and task has always been to find a pragmatic balance amongst competing interests that will serve the greatest common good.”

That is where she falls short, still stuck in the colonial administrative mindset of “we know what’s best for you”, rather than “we’d better start listening more to what you want” in such a polarised city.

The future doesn’t look heartening either when it comes to another big name in the race, John Tsang Chun-wah, who is still waiting for Beijing’s approval of his resignation as finance minister so he can throw his hat in the ring. It appears that he wants to take a shot at the top job against the wishes of the central government, counting on his domestic popularity to sway the decision-makers up north.

Financial Secretary John Tsang’s chief executive bid in limbo as he waits for Beijing’s approval

Unfortunately, a lot of that popularity has been cosmetically built up around him by the pan-demorats in their eagerness to see the last of Leung. Whether this long-serving bureaucrat, set in his ways and part of every unpopular government policy, like Lam, is the answer to Hong Kong’s problems is another matter altogether.

No one knows who will become the next chief executive, but what is certain is that he or she is in for a world of pain.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty to China. Get prepared for the transfer of hate as well, from one hapless leader to another. It wipes the smile right off my face.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post