Qiao Xiaoyang, the politician who won his critics' respect

Qiao Xiaoyang is no stranger to controversy. But even those who disagree with his policies respect the self-taught legal expert's approach

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 April, 2013, 5:21am

He's a man whose name many Hongkongers will regard as synonymous with controversy.

Whenever Qiao Xiaoyang is mentioned in the Hong Kong media, heated debate is usually not far away.

Qiao, 67, recently took centre stage when he discussed the city's electoral reform, which will decide the rules of the 2016 Legislative Council and 2017 chief executive elections.

Provided Legco agrees on the framework beforehand, the 2017 poll will see, for the first time, Hongkongers elect their leader by universal suffrage.

At a meeting with the city's pro-establishment lawmakers in Shenzhen late last month, the National People's Congress Law Committee chairman explained his views on the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution.

He made clear that those who opposed the central government would not be allowed to become the city's chief executive, dropping a heavy hint that a candidate-screening system would be imposed ahead of the poll.

His comments were slammed by the city's pan-democrats, who said it went against the international definition of universal suffrage. Their strong reaction was also in part because his remarks carried significant weight.

Qiao has, over the past decade, earned himself a reputation for being the legal expert among senior mainland officials. He was the leading figure to convey the central government's legal perspectives on the city's affairs.

But Qiao, who started his career as a translator, never underwent formal legal training. Rather, he gained his legal expertise through years of self-study.

Born in 1945 to a Red Army family in Hubei province, Qiao was the eldest son of Qiao Xinming, a war veteran in the New Fourth Army that fought against Japanese invasion in the second world war.

In 1964, Qiao was sent to Cuba's University of Havana to learn Spanish. He returned three years later to join the Cultural Revolution, and later resumed his studies in Beijing.

As a translator with the Jiangsu government, the young Qiao soon found himself on a path in politics, aided by his father's connections.

By the late 1970s, he had become personal secretary to Chen Pixian, a New Fourth Army veteran who was then in charge of Hubei. Chen's subsequent promotion to secretary of the party's Central Politics and Law Commission in the 1980s helped Qiao kick off his career in law.

Because of his father's connections, Qiao was also reportedly close to Zeng Qinghong , a close aide to former president Jiang Zemin and a retired member of the party's most powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

In the mid-1990s, he became involved in the preparation for Hong Kong's handover. In 1997, he was appointed a member of the Basic Law Committee - a body under the NPC Standing Committee - and in 2003, promoted to chairman until he stepped down last month.

During the decade in which he served in that role, Qiao visited Hong Kong three times - all under sensitive circumstances in relation to the city's political reform.

In April 2004, Qiao came to Hong Kong twice to explain the NPC's interpretation of the Basic Law and its decision to rule out introducing universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2007. Three years later, he returned to explain the national legislature's decision to set the schedule for universal suffrage in 2017.

In his visits, Qiao came across as being an open-minded and reasonable senior official. This won him the respect of critics despite the fact that the messages he conveyed did not favour the city's pursuit of democracy.

Former Bar Association chairman and Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit described the politician as one who "understood the Hong Kong legal sector's concern about the rule of law".

Ma Lik, the late NPC deputy and former chairman of the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also spoke well of Qiao.

"Qiao is one of the few NPC officials who became a legal expert through self-study and working experience … He seldom read [prepared] speeches and simply spoke his mind," he said.

It would not have been unusual for Qiao to prepare for an upcoming seminar by thinking up dozens of questions the media or audience might have for him, Ma said.

Basic Law Committee member Lau Nai-keung said Qiao was a well-respected official. "It is not an easy thing," he said.

But apart from his personal style, Hongkongers should also note Qiao's optimistic message for the city a decade ago.

When he left Hong Kong on his second visit in 2004, he said: "The standing committee decision is not an end for democracy in Hong Kong. Instead, it is a new starting point in the process of democracy. The decision offers huge room for future political reform."