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Loh a curious choice for government role but could make an impact in office

Having been opposed by Beijing in the past, likely new environment undersecretary is a curious choice - but could make a difference to C.Y.'s team

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2012, 11:57pm

In a report commissioned by the international investment group CLSA on Hong Kong's new chief executive, Christine Loh Kung-wai outlined Leung Chun-ying's most pressing environmental challenges: he should look at how to manage waste, tackle the notorious air pollution and conserve nature, she wrote.

Loh said Leung should combine economic investment and improving air quality "in a way that allows Hong Kong to continue to develop and at the same reduce air pollution, as California has successfully done".

What she then saw as Leung's responsibilities, however, will soon be her own: tipped to take up the post of undersecretary for the environment, the 56-year-old former legislator may finally have the opportunity to help Leung - and Hong Kong - catch up in adopting green policies widely practised in the US and beyond.

If she does accept the post, it is a move that will see Loh becoming a doer again, more than a decade after she retired from the Legislative Council. Having been seen as a champion of civil rights and a pan-democrat, her likely acceptance of a post within Leung's administration has been greeted with as much surprise as her move in 2000 to quit a seemingly fledgling career in frontline politics to conduct environmental and social policy research as chief executive of Civic Exchange, a think tank she co-founded with her then-leading aide Lisa Hopkinson.

Loh has as yet refused to confirm her appointment, and declined to be interviewed last week about the situation because she is "busy with work" - echoing her denials in June that she had applied for the position. Yet a person familiar with the situation confirmed to the
South China Morning Post that she has been offered the job, although it was still uncertain if she will actually take it.

Such hesitation might stem partly from the opposition she once faced and probably would face again from Beijing-loyalist groups. It is understood that when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen won another term as chief executive in 2007, he offered the post of environment minister to Loh. But despite her track record as a green advocate, her candidacy was opposed - and possibly torpedoed - by conservative groups with a direct line to the central government.

Loh was again tipped as a candidate for the post earlier this year, but Leung appointed architect and Green Building Council member Wong Kam-sing instead.

With Leung's many political appointees landing in hot water, however, Loh's presence might help reinvigorate public faith in the new government. According to political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung of Chinese University, her track record as an advocate of universal suffrage may help boost the image of Leung's administration.

Loh's reputation for being a progressive politician began in 1992, when she left her career as a commodities trader to become one of Governor Chris Patten's appointees to the Legislative Council. Within a year, she steered through a controversial amendment giving women in the New Territories the same rights as men to inherit rural land - a proposal which triggered violent protests outside the council building in Central. Some residents even threatened to rape Loh if she were to venture into the New Territories.

One of the legislators who fought with her was the Democratic Party's Zachary Wong Wai-yin, who sat next to Loh in the Legco chamber from 1992 to 1997. "Loh was very determined on sexual equality, maybe it was because she received Western education and went to international schools since she was a kid … she was resolute about environmental protection, too," Wong said.

A victory for Loh's environmental agenda was the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which she presented to Legco and had enacted in 1997. It prevented Victoria Harbour from conducting large-scale reclamation works, which she said might effectively turn the harbour into a river.

Loh beat the veteran lawmaker and urban councillor Peggy Lam Pei Yu-dja when she ran in her first legislative election in 1995, with her political co-ordinates made more evident when she founded the Citizens' Party shortly before the handover. Forced out of her post when Beijing replaced the body with the appointed Provisional Legislative Council in 1997, she returned to the chamber the following year after a second successful election campaign.

Two years later, Loh announced her surprise decision not to run in the 2000 polls. In her autobiography
Being Here: Shaping a Preferred Future, published in 2006, Loh said she bade farewell to Legco because her "assessment of the future Legco for the coming term was bleak. The then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was not interested in developing a partnership with legislators even though he said he was … It struck me that it was perhaps time to find a new path to continue my interest in promoting good governance, as well as environmental protection and sustainable development."

Loh subsequently founded Civic Exchange, which conducted and released Hong Kong's first in-depth survey of residents' environmental behaviour in 2001, produced an air management policy in 2006, and also published books on the government's ministerial system and the functional constituencies in Legco.

Well-regarded among local green groups, Loh's appointment would certainly be unlike that of the now much-maligned Paul Chan Mo-po, whose suitability as development minister was roundly questioned given his background as an accountant.

Hahn Chu Hon-keung, senior environmental manager of Friends of the Earth, welcomed Loh's possible appointment. He believes that given her experience, she is a suitable, even overqualified candidate.

However, Chu said that if Loh became undersecretary, the government must be transparent about possible conflicts of interest. The Environment Bureau's responsibilities include monitoring and negotiating with electricity firms, and Civic Exchange's financial sponsors include CLP Power. "It is reasonable for Civic Exchange to accept sponsors as a think tank," Chu said. "[But if appointed,] I think Loh can no longer keep her think tank role."

Chu also believes pollution, road-side air quality in particular, has worsened in recent years. He said he hoped that if Loh took the job, she would tackle the problem. "I hope stricter air quality objectives … can be set. We have the capability and resources to do so," he said.

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