Spare a thought in your prayers tonight for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office head Xia Baolong. Some time within the coming months he has to decide who will be elected Hong Kong’s chief executive in March next year.
Even determining a slate of possible candidates is not going to be easy. I am struggling to do so for reasons I will explain in a moment, but that is OK: I am just a newspaper columnist and can speculate to my heart’s content. Nothing important hinges on the accuracy of my guess. By contrast it is Xia’s job to find the perfect person. The position requires someone who can win the hearts of Hong Kong people and simultaneously handle the relationship with Beijing in a way which inspires confidence in the corridors of Zhongnanhai. And given Hong Kong’s profile in world diplomatic affairs at the moment, it would help if he or she also had credibility on the international stage. Quite a challenge to put it mildly.
Our first two chief executives each served the maximum two terms so neither is eligible for a comeback. The third and fourth on the other hand – Leung Chun-ying (2012 –2017) and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor whose term expires in June 2022 – could in theory take up the post for a second time. It is clear from recent reports in the media that both consider themselves to be fully qualified and to have a strong case.
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of their supporters, there are problems with both candidates. Leung is intellectually capable and respected by his fellow professionals. But he never really generated much warmth from the general public. His rather aloof style, and his reluctance (or inability) to compromise on political reform led directly to the 2014 Occupy stand-off. Moreover, allowing him to take office again now does rather call into question the wisdom of forcing him to abort his 2017 re-election campaign at the last minute. It would also look odd for someone occupying a relatively senior position at national level to be seen to be stepping down to a more junior position at local level.
Lam has achieved the seemingly impossible feat of being even less popular than Leung. Her many errors in handling the extradition issue have been well chronicled, so I will not repeat them here. The violence that episode did so much to generate has left scars on Hong Kong society that will take many years to heal. Her personal style has even well-wishers shaking their heads. The latest problem area is how to lead the city in recovering from the effects of the pandemic. That requires a “whole community” approach by way of mass vaccination. Lam has been unable to generate widespread enthusiasm for this, even from normally loyal troops like the TVB stable of stars who could usually be counted on to urge their fans to step up to the plate. While London and New York, our main competitors as global financial centres, are well past a 50 per cent vaccination rate, and Singapore is fast catching up. We are struggling to get much past the 20 per cent level. They will be open for business while we are still requiring even vaccinated executives to quarantine. The private sector is gallantly doing its best to fill the void left by the administration but there is surely more the government could and should be doing, even if it is only coordinating the various lucky draw schemes.
One option, obviously, would be to let these two political behemoths simply slug it out – a home-grown version of “Godzilla versus Kong” if you like – with fewer deaths but a similar level of destruction a wag might say. But something tells me Beijing would not feel comfortable with such an approach. It hardly portrays social harmony. After the bitterness and division of recent years, Xia is likely to favour some peace and quiet.
Putting these two candidates aside, the options elsewhere look pretty meagre. Among serving senior officials, only financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po is remotely plausible, but he may not be interested in moving so far out of his comfort zone. Exco convenor Bernard Charnwut Chan goes to great lengths to take himself out of the running whenever asked and is in any case probably tainted by the close association with Lam. At one time a lot of attention was focused on DAB leader Starry Lee Wai-king, but she seems rather lightweight for such a tough job and is better suited to the legislature.
It is a real struggle to identify even one viable candidate, let alone two or three to provide the appearance of a contest. This has led some commentators to suggest we scrap the whole idea and instead revert to the old system under the British whereby we are simply sent a governor selected by the parent government. The idea is not without merit. It avoids the acrimony inevitable in a contested election. But it does somewhat undercut the concept of “Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong”. Beijing will not want to go that route.
There has been one recent glimmer of light amidst the gloom: a flurry of excitement about former stock exchange chief Charles Li Xiaojia who stepped down ahead of schedule. He secured agreement with central authorities on ways to strengthen Hong Kong’s role as an international financial centre and has a reasonable profile in world markets. Could he win the affection of local people? It’s too early to say. And that is another complicating factor. Generating support prematurely can backfire – who can forget the implosion of front runner Henry Tang’s campaign in 2012.
All in all I expect the next few months to see continued sniping by Leung and Lam, but we won’t see the real candidates until Christmas time. Top of my wish list is a fresh face. Let us hope Santa is feeling generous.