Hail To The Chief

I still remember the day my daughter came home from school with her nose seriously out of joint. Upon enquiry, she revealed the cause of her displeasure: an English teacher had used one of my columns in this newspaper as the basis for a lesson in class. The news spread quickly around the whole of Heep Yunn 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 came through that Leung Chun Ying would not after all be seeking a second term as chief executive, quoting family concerns as the prime cause. The media reported that one of his daughters had been in hospital for a prolonged period suffering from stress. If a low profile fortnightly 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.

Speculation was already rife about possible candidates. Retired judge Mr Justice Woo Kwok Hing was first out of the blocks to declare his candidacy. The second person to say publically that she planned to enter the fray was former Secretary for Security and (just resigned) Exco Member Regina Ip. Significantly, former chief secretary Sir David Akers-Jones – a prominent backer of Leung in 2012 -- came out to support Ip’s candidacy even before she had declared it. Challenged about this on a local radio show, Akers-Jones said it was "time for a change". Even more eyebrows were raised by the heavy hints coming for several months from financial secretary John Tsang that he was minded to stand against his own boss. Tsang submitted his resignation last week, but it needs to be formally accepted by the Central People’s Government in Beijing before he can launch his campaign. Liberal Party leading light James Tien has already thrown his support to Tsang.

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, had already made it clear she would not run against her boss and was planning retirement. 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 pro democrats of over 300 seats on the 1200 member Election Committee. Taken together these factors give Beijing some serious thinking to do.

I wrote in this column 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.

So if the capital accepts Tsang’s resignation and allows him to stand, and Lam joins Ip on the distaff side, 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 the CPG, 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". 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. And 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.

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 Regina "Article 23" Ip – everyone would know they were bluffing if they suggested they might. 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.