When Rafael Hui Si-yan described himself as an 'old hand-cum-freshman' as he was named chief secretary on June 30, he brought a sophisticated and sensitive approach to the fast-changing political landscape. As a veteran civil servant with 35 years' experience, few doubt Mr Hui's understanding of the inner workings of government and the political system's strengths and weaknesses. Known for his easygoing style and adept social skills, he has few enemies in the political arena. That said, the only newcomer to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration is more than aware of the precarious situation he is in for the next two years. The government's No 2 man must deal with two highly contentious and complex issues - constitutional reform for 2007/08, and the West Kowloon cultural district development project. In addition to that, he faces the arduous task of living up to the public's sky-high expectations in both Hong Kong and Beijing, following the resignation of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. After eight years of lacklustre leadership by Mr Tung, the political comeback of Mr Hui has been seen as part of a return to normality - both in terms of day-to-day matters and crisis management by the government. Mindful of inflated expectations, Mr Hui was speaking the truth when he said: 'I feel worried and frightened. [I have a] huge responsibility. I need to support Mr Tsang. I also need to maintain harmony and co-operation with the various sectors of society. 'The first priority of the new government is [to promote] unity. Only with unity will we be able to pool together efforts to serve the people ...and deliver results in the shortest period of time.' It may sound like uncharacteristic rhetoric but his pledge to instil a sense of unity carries a practical importance in the race to detonate a handful of political time bombs in the next year. Speaking at a press briefing last week, the chief secretary revealed he will chair a top-level committee to plan and co-ordinate preparations for the World Trade Organisation's ministerial meeting in December. Mr Hui said it was vital for the government to secure the support of people and shop owners who would be affected by the security and transport arrangements in Wan Chai and the surrounding area. Hong Kong, he said, would not be able to survive as an international financial hub without support from the global trading body. Hours after he spoke, police and district officials briefed traders and shop owners in Wan Chai over the WTO meeting. Footage of WTO protests that had turned ugly was shown to legislators by officials on Monday, to convince them of the need to invoke powers laid out in the Public Order Ordinance to seal off a huge area around the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre area during the conference. A senior western diplomat said: 'Hui's a smooth operator. He looks relaxed. It's a wise decision [to set up a top-level co-ordinating body]. There're a lot of practical security and traffic problems.' Still, officials fear the WTO conference could trigger a political backlash, as ordinary people may not understand the significance of the event. More importantly, many are not prepared for a worst-case scenario. One official said: 'The former Tung administration was harshly criticised for its penchant for grandiose international events. People will view the WTO meeting as yet another government extravaganza.' Public ownership and participation are Mr Hui's keywords when it comes to good governance. Speaking at a press briefing on his first day at work, he said he got involved with the Hunghom Peninsula controversy due to the belief that businesses could no longer operate regardless of public opinion. The same down-to-earth understanding of a politicised society was uppermost in Mr Hui's mind as he contemplated ways to deal with the stalemate over the West Kowloon cultural district development. Faced with strong opposition from various sectors and all major political parties over the single-developer approach, he knew any development model without a degree of public participation and buy-in would be a non-starter. 'At an appropriate stage, [we] must provide room for participation by certain sectors and relevant figures. The government cannot run the project from beginning to end single-handedly,' he said. 'It's now a question of at what stage and what level [public] participation can serve the end.' Mr Hui's remarks were made amid speculation that the government would set up an independent statutory body - similar to the Airport Authority - comprised of government officials and community figures to oversee the development of the West Kowloon cultural complex. The top official was non-committal on specific proposals for the project's development. Nevertheless, the merits of the idea of emulating the success of the Airport Authority model are clear. Public participation will help spare the government from the brunt of criticism in handling the multibillion-dollar project. Accepting the proposal, which was raised by some legislators and community figures, will help mute critics who have accused the government of failing to listen to the people. By taking a step backwards, Mr Hui will create room for political manoeuvring, allowing the project to move to the next stage while saving the face of his boss, Mr Tsang. Mr Tsang, who headed a top-level steering committee on the project in his capacity as chief secretary, initially stood firm on the single-developer approach and the giant-canopy design. He later softened his stance on the single-developer model. Mr Hui has made it clear he did not like the idea of a giant canopy, but noted that 'the new chief secretary has to listen to what the new chief executive has said'. Never mind the apparent discord. A member of the Tsang team said he was convinced the pair had reached a broad understanding on the project's next stage. 'By September or October next year, the government will have to give a clear roadmap on the project for it to proceed accordingly without being affected by the chief executive election in 2007,' said another member of the Tsang team. While there are signs of a compromise over that project, arrangements for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections in 2007 and 2008 will pose perhaps the toughest challenge to the Tsang-Hui team. Faced with a community poles apart on favoured electoral methods and a pressing legislative timetable, Mr Hui has suggested the government is preparing to lay down its own proposal when the debate enters its crucial stage, in autumn. He said it would be irresponsible of the government if it failed to formulate a package of electoral arrangements after months of public discussion. 'At the end of the day, the government must take a stance and come up with a proposal.' Some pro-democracy legislators have urged the government to publish various options of electoral changes in a consultation paper. They maintain the electoral methods must be devised in a form closest to the 'one person, one vote' model. Conservatives in Hong Kong and Beijing, however, have no appetite for substantive changes in electoral methods - particularly for the Legislative Council - that may upset the balance of power in any way to favour of the democrats. Without giving any hint of government thinking, Mr Hui has underlined the importance of assessing public views on electoral arrangements collected during the last round of consultation. He said: 'We have a basic understanding of public opinion, [views collected during] consultation on the pace of political reform in future ... Everybody needs to know we must first understand public opinion.' Dubbed the 'king of strategy', Mr Hui understands he is no magician when it comes to bridging the sharp divide in the community over the pace of democratisation. If he has been seen as the best bet to perform miracles on this issue, it is because of his ability to read the community. To him, politics is a game where the government wins some, and loses some. Upgrading its defence against the possibility of own goals can put the government in a no-lose situation before it is able to find its own net. One of his long-time friends said of Mr Hui: 'There is no 'king of strategies'. He's able to identify clearly what the differences are and try to make a deal acceptable [to each party]. It's as simple as that.'