The race to be Hong Kong's next chief executive is intensifying as potential candidates raise the competition stakes. Meanwhile, the media and public are fuelling the debate.
Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen has long been viewed as a front runner who has Beijing's blessing. But a recent survey by the University of Hong Kong shows that he has fallen behind in the popularity ratings. Not only is he far behind the latest hot favourite, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, he is also trailing pan-democrat Alan Leong Kah-kit. Tang is only ahead of Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying.
The dark horse is former Legislative Council president Fan, who seems to be making a higher-profile bid for the post. She said she would decide in two months whether to run, but at the same time made clear that if she were to win, she would sit for only one term because of her age and poor health.
Confining herself to just one term has in fact given her a huge advantage because it would limit her political baggage. With no ambition to win another term, she would be the ideal person to tackle thorny issues, such as the implementation of the controversial Article 23 national security legislation.
Fan has said the next chief executive must seriously tackle the issue. That bold statement immediately put her at an advantage because Tang and Leung have been evasive on this highly sensitive issue.
Meanwhile, prominent Beijing loyalist Ng Hong-mun's recent 'recommendation' that Fan, with the support of Tang and Leung, would form the perfect 'dream team' has burnished Fan's leadership credentials.
To most people, Fan may seem to have the upper hand because she is ambitious and audacious, and willing to 'sacrifice' herself by accepting the task of implementing Article 23. But I don't think she has anything special to offer.
Whoever takes the job will have to handle Article 23 and accept all the political consequences of pushing it through the legislative process. That prospect might be daunting even to Fan, who in fact later moderated her tone on the issue. When she was asked by the media to clarify her position, she said it was too early to talk about the proposed law.
People like her because they believe she is not ambitious, as she is willing to take the helm for just one term. But that kind of 'limited' ambition could also work against her. If she has only five years to do the job, she wouldn't have to worry about winning the hearts of the people and would just do whatever Beijing tells her.
Both Leung and Tang lack the political shrewdness to retaliate to Fan's approach. Leung, for example, seems unable to maintain his long-established image that he has broad vision and strong political principles.
Anyway, in the end, his political engineering to create a polished political image is a waste of time because we all know that the next chief executive election will be a small-circle election, which is a thoroughly undemocratic process. Leung would be better off polishing his personal image to win the hearts of the people.
In fact, everybody has a weakness. Fan wasn't that tough and bold when asked to comment on the Tiananmen incident. She, like Tang and Leung, was also evasive.
All in all, Tang's latest performance has been quite disappointing. He has been ambiguous over a number of significant issues, such as Article 23. His recent rejection of criticism that property tycoons unfairly dominate Hong Kong's economy has created more social conflict and put these tycoons in an even more awkward position. Those comments have also made him unpopular.
To be honest, it won't be that difficult to beat Fan. Candidates just need to show the public they have the will and determination to do a good job, and be honest about the position and the difficulties that come with it. Next year's election is still a controlled event, but the ones that follow will be totally different. So, the best and strongest support will still come from the masses.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org