Sowing the seeds of confusion for voters

SOCIALITE Mrs Alice Chiu Tsang Hok-wan is probably more liberal than most of the politicians she will meet today at the first meeting of the preparatory committee aiming to form the Liberal Party out of the conservative Co-operative Resources Centre (CRC).

The financier's wife believes it is right to ask for more directly-elected seats in the 1995 Legislative Council polls, a request Beijing adamantly opposes, and which would likely send most of her fellow members recoiling with horror.

But Mrs Chiu has somewhat lost track of political developments. ''I am not sure exactly how many directly-elected seats there will be in 1995,'' she said, conceding she knew little about Governor Mr Chris Patten's controversial plans for political reform.

Indeed the liberal credentials of the socialite seem to stem more from naivete than conviction. ''My knowledge of politics is, you may say, very elementary.'' she said.

''I don't know much about party politics. I don't have any political ambition either.'' Mrs Chiu also admitted she was confused about the nature of the CRC for a long time.

With a loyalty to the new party - evident from her lavish praise of the group - that seems to far exceed her knowledge of it, all Mrs Chiu appears certain about is that the CRC needs ''a few good friends'' for its bid for the 1995 direct elections, and is willing to help however she can.

And she is far from the only surprise among the 42 members of the preparatory committee, whose names were revealed last week. Many eyebrows were also raised by socialites such as Mrs Pansy Hui, daughter of casino guru Mr Stanley Ho, and graphic designer Kan Tai-keung.

Other than the 14 CRC legislators and the handful of municipal councillors, half of the members are either political unknowns or are understood to have no plans to become active political figures.

Many, like Mrs Chiu, admit they are in the political learning process, signalling a potentially bumpy road ahead for the new party as its members' lack of political credibility becomes apparent.

Expectations for a strong line-up had already been written off since the plan to merge with the Liberal Democratic Federation (LDF) was aborted last year. The group has dropped conservative heavyweights such as Miss Maria Tam Wai-chu and Dr Raymond Wu Wai-yung from the list to avoid the new party being seen as too pro-China.

While one effect of this has been to leave Mr Lee as the only potential leader of the future party, in severing the link with the LDF he seemed to be guided by paranoia rather than pragmatism.

Now, unable to draw on the talents of an important sector of the conservative camp, the new party is far from the original concept of a solid union of the territory's conservative forces.

Perhaps too eager to avoid being labelled, the new party is set on a middle-of-the-road course that has yet to give it a clear-cut image and much-needed distinction from other conservative groups.

The line-up has also shown how Mr Lee's party has fallen prey to the cut-throat competition between fledgling parties of all political persuasions to recruit on the professional and district fronts.

Many would-be politicians are attracted to the new party merely because it is a convenient way to enter the fray.

Maverick young doctor and failed by-election candidate Mr Lee York-fai, who is renowned for turning up at his rivals' rallies and then trying to steal the limelight, has explicitly expressed an interest in becoming a rank-and-file member once the new party is launched. But other aspiring recruits would rather take a wait-and-see attitude as they contemplate offers from rival political parties, a clear sign of a lack of commitment.

If, indeed, Mr Lee is keen on forming a party with the broadest possible support, finding a good selling point is of utmost importance. Certainly, the lack of grassroots support and clearly-identified class interests should not be overlooked.

Even the initial draft of the manifesto is a confusing affair, with some observers saying it is strikingly reminiscent to that of the pro-China Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hongkong.

Already the name of the new party is bound to cause much confusion in the future. While the party is unmistakably an advocate of conservative business interests, by naming it the Liberal Party, Mr Lee is perhaps flaunting his mastery of the art of pre-empting the opposition, as some members have confessed the party was set up to ''counteract the liberal camp''.

Evidently stung by the negative image associated with the name ''CRC gang'' - which sounds even worse in Cantonese than English - Mr Lee has bent over backwards to avoid any possible bad connotation from the new name.

But, as that has been at the price of a name so out of place with the party's political stance, it is more likely to cause confusion than attract members.

With many well-wishers eager to offer their advice, a more aggressive public relations policy and solid commitment from future members should now be high priorities.

Certainly, most CRC legislators would not forget how their success in promoting the ''sandwich class'' housing scheme went down the drain when other political parties jumped on the bandwagon and championed the same cause.

While Mr Lee may have every reason to congratulate himself for having brought together enough people to form the core of a new party, something that at times seemed in doubt over the past few months, he must be careful not to become complacent.

For although the excellent timing of tomorrow's visit to Beijing is certain to give the new group a political boost, with an organising committee of political unknowns he is certain to face some rough times ahead.