Good company and fair fights

SCMP March 4 2012

It must surely now be all over bar the formalities. What are the lessons? Even the most stalwart protectors of sleaze must recognise the dangers of foisting Henry Tang ying-yen on Hong Kong. But the latest act in the selection mess is a further example of how Beijing has yet to understand that Hong Kong people want real choice, not one manufactured in the name of the many puppets among the 1,200 electors.

The failure of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee to gain enough nominations to become a candidate shows the contempt with which Beijing's string pullers hold the views of Hong Kong people. I was never a supporter of Ip. However, it is clear, from her success in direct elections, her standing with the public and her experience in government, that she was viewed by the people as a credible candidate, not far behind Leung Chun-ying in the polls. She might even have furthered her claim if the investigation into the West Kowloon design issues finds more dirt than seems likely. But, no, the 311 voters of the Election Committee who failed to nominate anyone were doing as they were told - don't nominate Ip - thus depriving her of the necessary 150 votes.

Beijing's motives appear dominated by the belief that a first-ballot victory is necessary to ensure the authority of the elected executive. This is pure Leninism. Secondary considerations in keeping Ip off the ballot appear to be a fear that she does have a mind of her own and that she is a woman, not a recommendation by the look of the Politburo or of China's gender birth imbalance after 60 years of communism.

Looking to 2017, lesson No 1 for Beijing must be that Hong Kong people should be offered a genuine choice. It does not need to be a contest between those perceived to be pro- or anti-Beijing. Clearly, Beijing will retain some means of vetoing those viewed as unacceptable. But, within that framework, competition needs to be encouraged.

Long before the basement scandal surfaced, it already seemed bizarre, given his poor track record in government, that Tang was the best that Beijing could find. Was it enough that he came from a good Shanghai family, was tycoon-friendly and would do what he was told because he had no mind of his own? Having more than two serious contenders would also reduce the role of Politburo faction fights in the decision.

Hopefully, Beijing, not least Xi Jinping, is now taking on board how out of touch it is with Hong Kong sentiments, in the same way it eventually responded to the sentiments of the determined villagers of Wukan, recognising that grievances need addressing not suppressing. Hopefully, too, it will realise the pernicious role that a group of tycoons play, acting like the bosses of state enterprises on the mainland with political as well as business roles. Their ABC (Anyone But C.Y.) intervention in Beijing should actually ring alarm bells at the top in a China trying to get to grips with wealth gaps and corruption.

From that perspective, recent revelations about Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen have actually been more noteworthy than the underground palace and Tang's response. If you judge a man by the company he keeps, Tsang comes across very differently from the image he has long cultivated of the hard-working, church-going, modest man of principle striving to earn his salary in the service of the community.

As one of the tycoon set from birth, Tang did not need to look up to his fellow tycoons; they are his equals. Tsang's choice of friends and his enjoyment of the luxuries at their command was a side of him that had been kept well-hidden. His hob-nobbing with the Macau gambling industry fraternity is no crime but, as he acknowledged by attempting to hide his face, it was not the company he should have been keeping.

A chief executive does have an obligation to choose his companions with care, at least when they are in businesses whose profits are linked to decisions made by his government. That Hong Kong is a small and incestuous place makes it all the more important to keep a distance. It is not unreasonable for people to ask whether the government's long- running failure to resolve the traffic mess created by tunnel toll differentials is not somehow connected to the relationship between Tsang and Cheung Chung-kiu, chairman of Cross-Harbour, which has a 50per cent stake in the Western Harbour Tunnel and other transport interests. Cheung is also known to be close to Cheng Yu-tung of New World group, the employer of Tsang's former-police-chief brother, and contributor to his 2007 election campaign.

For sure, everywhere wealth brings a degree of power. But power acquired by other means - election, promotion in the bureaucracy, technological expertise - gives no right to riches. Indeed, it is one of the more worrying aspects of the mainland today, not so much at the highest levels but at upper-middle levels, that there is an assumption that power and wealth should go together, that those with political achievements, such as leadership of a city, have a right to be rewarded with riches, not just a comfortable living.

It reminds me, as it should remind Tsang who grew up in a police household, of the Hong Kong police prior to the 1974 reforms. Syndicated corruption, which made many superintendents and station sergeants very rich, was seen as an unofficial reward for their loyalty to the colonial government during the Star Ferry riots of 1966 and Cultural-Revolution- inspired bombs, strikes and demonstrations in 1967.




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