Why Carrie Lam would be the best chief executive for the pan-democrats

Mike Rowse says the pro-democracy camp should seek real campaign concessions from Lam and use their votes to help her to a big win

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2016, 9:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2016, 6:00pm

I still remember the day my daughter came home from school with her nose seriously out of joint, after an English teacher used one of my columns in this newspaper as the basis for a lesson in class. The news spread quickly around school and, before the end of the day, the other girls had teased her ragged.

This was a trivial matter quickly forgotten. But I did reflect on it when the shock news broke that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would not be seeking a second term, quoting family concerns as the prime cause. Media reports said one of his daughters had been in hospital for a long time, suffering from stress. If a low-profile columnist could cause minor disturbance to a family member, how much greater must be the pressure on children of those senior officials whose parents appear in the newspapers virtually every day.

Watch: Regina Ip vows to “win back Hong Kong”

Speculation was already rife about possible candidates, and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing was first out of the blocks. The second person to declare that she planned to enter the fray was former security secretary Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. Significantly, former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones – a prominent backer of Leung in 2012 – came out to support Ip’s candidacy, saying it was “time for a change”. Even more eyebrows were raised by the heavy hints coming for several months from Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, that he was minded to stand against his own boss. Tsang has submitted his resignation, but it needs to be formally accepted by Beijing before he can launch his campaign. Liberal Party leading light James Tien Pei-chun has already thrown his support behind Tsang.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam on the offensive as leadership race looms

Leung’s withdrawal has put the cat among the pigeons in a big way. His sudden decision caught most by surprise because, up until late November, he still seemed on track for a second term. His deputy, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, had said she would not run against her boss and was planning to retire. Leung’s decision, plus Tsang’s resignation and all but declared candidacy, all came at the same time as a third “black swan” – the capture by pan-democrats of over 300 seats on the nearly 1,200 member Election Committee. Taken together, these factors give Beijing some serious thinking to do.

I wrote here several months ago that Lam would only consider running if Leung were not a candidate, and Beijing tapped her on the shoulder and said it was her patriotic duty to step up. We saw the equivalent of that tap last week, with two big hugs in public in one day from former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Watch: Leung Chun-ying declares he will not seek a second term

So, if Beijing accepts Tsang’s resignation and allows him to stand, that would make three pro-government candidates, plus the judge, with over 300 maverick voters running loose. Not to put too fine a point on it, that renders the situation out of Beijing’s control. It therefore raises the distinct possibility that the leadership will put Tsang’s resignation on hold while they consider their options.

Seen from Beijing, Tsang scores well for handling Hong Kong’s finances prudently, and his poll numbers suggest a high degree of public acceptability, which fits well with the new priority of “harmony”.

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On the other hand, he was private secretary to Chris Patten – the “sinner of a thousand years” – while the last governor was putting his controversial political reform package together. Also, some see Tsang as too close to the big tycoons. One idea, already floated, would be to offer him a high-profile job in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or similar body and coax him out of standing. If that doesn’t work, they can just leave his resignation in someone’s pending tray until the deadline for nominations passes.

The remaking of financial chief John Tsang into ‘local Hong Kong boy’

Where does all this leave the pan-democrats? If there were four candidates, they would have a lot of influence, hence the pressure on Beijing not to go down that road. If Tsang were sidelined, it would come down to a straight fight between Ip and Lam. The pan-dems are hardly likely to vote for Ip. Far better to gain some real concessions from Lam during the campaign – a pledge to scrap corporate voting, and set minimum electorate sizes for the functional constituencies, for example – and give her a thumping victory. Well, at least more than 689.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. [email protected]