A member of the local Chinese elite groomed by the British colonial government, Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai will have come a long way when she steps down as Legislative Council president next year. And if her political journey has not been dramatic enough already, her probable elevation to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress will be another wonder. The political legacy of Mrs Fan, who has presided over the legislature for a decade, was the subject of much discussion in radio phone-in programmes and newspaper commentaries last week after she announced she would not run for re-election to Legco next year. Her early announcement, she explained, would remove the uncertainty for other aspirants to her seat in the Hong Kong Island geographical constituency. Two of them, she hinted, were Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a former security minister, and Miriam Lau Kin-yee, of the Liberal Party. Not surprisingly, journalists and pundits immediately turned their eyes to what Mrs Ip or Ms Lau might do next. There have been many twists and turns in the career of Mrs Fan, who has consistently been rated the most popular political figure in opinion surveys. Many have wondered how she managed to survive a major political setback when, in the early 1990s, she quit the Executive Council and became one of the strongest critics of Chris Patten, the last governor. Now people are asking what role she could possibly play on the volatile political landscape between Hong Kong and the mainland if, as looks likely, she is chosen to sit on the Standing Committee, the mainland's highest organ of power. From being branded pro-British in the 1980s to pro-Beijing after she joined the Preliminary Working Committee - established to counter London in the final years of colonial rule - in 1993, Mrs Fan's political fortunes have taken a number of turns. Although ridiculed by some as 'Hong Kong's Jiang Qing' (after one of the infamous Gang of Four) because of her dress and hair style when she became president of the legislature in 1997, she has won the hearts of many with her style, approach and touch. True, her role allowed her to stay aloof from the fireworks in Legco meetings and in society at large. But refereeing the political free-for-all in Legco was no easy task given the strains in relations between the legislature and government. In such a highly politicised environment, she could have been caught in no-win situations when her judgments on contentious issues conflicted with her reasoning and, most importantly, independence and impartiality. If the way she handled the set-piece protests by 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung were a model of political brinkmanship, it was because of her success in finding a balance between maintaining the order and dignity of the legislature and allowing tolerance and flexibility towards dissenting voices. At a time when the lack of political leadership has deepened feelings of anxiety in society about disorder and a deficit of authority and trust, the impartial and independent image and style of Mrs Fan kept alive hopes for a stable political order. Possibly, this was due in part to Mrs Fan's skill at reconciling differences from the high position of Legco president. Yet her phenomenal political survival skills could shed some light on the qualities, style and approach ordinary people are looking for from politicians. People recognise that politicians are constrained - by British rule before 1997, by the mainland factor since and by the web of economic and political interests that exist in society. So their expectations of political leaders are often surprisingly simple. They want genuine, independent, plain-spoken people who address their hopes and fears about life without fear or favour.