High hopes for Hong Kong’s next chief executive bring with them fears of a headlong fall

Alice Wu says everyone, from Li Ka-shing to Chris Patten, is talking about bringing hope to Hong Kong, but are we just setting ourselves up to be let down?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2016, 9:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2016, 6:47pm

It looks like almost everyone is weighing in on what they think it takes to become Hong Kong’s chief executive. Following the job description President Xi Jinping (習近平) spelled out while in Peru for the Apec summit – namely, policy implementation, consensus building, a focus on livelihood issues, safeguarding national unity and maintaining stability – we’re hearing more about what our leader should have, not just do.

The last governor, Chris Patten, had a few things in mind, too, during his recent visit. He almost sounded like a self-help book: any good leader needs to be a good listener to a diverse group of people, be decisive and able to garner support. He did get specific, saying a good chief executive should be able to “represent Hong Kong to Beijing and the international community”. It’s nuanced and palatable enough, except that it came from “the sinner for a thousand years”, and so Beijing is likely to find it distasteful.

Perhaps easier on the ear, at least for Beijing, may be “capable of bringing hope”. That is how Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing put it in his election platform for the Election Committee, for which he has already secured a seat.

Hong Kong’s chief [will have to] be enough of a hedgehog for Beijing and a fox for Hongkongers

Li listed other criteria but this “hope” thing is indeed worth examining. Is Hong Kong really lacking in “hope”? More importantly, can we reasonably pin all our “hope” on one individual?

Interestingly, Li’s “hope” pledge elicited a response from our current chief executive, who said his administration’s work on solving the housing shortage has been “hopeful”. But is “hope” simply having a home? It may bring comfort, but hope? It’s going to take a lot more than that.

Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing vows to elect a leader who can bring hope to the city

Hong Kong is struggling with multiple crises of confidence. We’ve not been able to get through our political gridlock while we continue to stockpile our social and livelihood problems. Ever since the handover, chief executives have talked about the need to diversify our economy, and yet, we’re still talking about diversifying our economy. We are still talking about increasing our competitiveness as the dark clouds of losing our competitive edge grow and loom over us. The more we ignore the ageing population, the harder the silver tsunami will slam down on us. We despair about losing our uniqueness, our identity, our dynamism, so much so that some would rather insulate Hong Kong from the rapidly changing world around us. We struggle with a rising motherland that seems hell-bent on putting us in our place.

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What “hope” is there when people, however misguided, and foolish, or as Patten puts it, “self-deceiving”, are deemed deserving to be compared to – and by extension treated like – rats? Such rhetoric is just as inappropriate, abusive and unbecoming for a former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office as the behaviour of the subjects of his scorn. That sort of personal attack displays a complete lack of grace and goodwill that are necessary to mend the debilitating schism between Hong Kong and Beijing.

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In the face of an increasingly restless, lost and hopeless people, the chief executive must have the political wisdom and acumen to be an effective leader with the fortitude to put Beijing and Hongkongers at ease. That last bit would require Hong Kong’s chief – to borrow from the late Sir Isaiah Berlin – to be enough of a hedgehog for Beijing and a fox for Hongkongers. In short, it would take a political genius supremely overqualified for the job.

It’s any one’s guess who Li had in mind when he composed his pledge for hope. To place hope in, or to impose it on, one individual is propping everyone up to fall from the heights of a hope misplaced.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA