There’s still six months to go before the next chief executive election, but already the race is heating up. In view of the fast-changing backdrop I thought it might be helpful to do a stock-taking exercise now to make it easier to track future developments.
Judging from his silence in recent weeks, former CE Leung Chun-ying has definitely taken himself out of the running. This is very wise in my view: it is questionable whether Beijing would have allowed a comeback at all because that would have called into question the wisdom of the original decision in 2017 to switch horses. But why would a man now holding a more senior position in the national hierarchy and destined to chair the election committee here (another powerful post) want to step down to chief executive anyway. Been there, done that, no point in a repeat.
Incumbent Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is still fighting tooth and nail for a second term. Despite reports in some quarters that Beijing may already have ruled her out, she continues to see herself as a viable candidate. Either she hasn’t heard the rumours, or doesn’t believe them and is minded to fight on. Her recent announcement of a significant restructuring of policy bureaus fits into this scenario. Splitting the transport and housing portfolios into separate policy areas is something first suggested some years ago. When Hong Kong’s housing development was largely “rail led” it made sense to push them both together but it has been obvious for a long time that the job is just too big for any one person. Certainly the incumbent has struggled. The question will be how to coordinate housing with land supply and of course both still have to be coordinated with transport. There’s no point having land suitable for housing development if there is no access to it. In fact, lack of coordination seems to be at the root of the problem and creating a new bureau, by itself, will not solve it. Nobody seems to be taking a holistic view of these three overlapping areas and until that is addressed the situation is unlikely to improve. It will be interesting to see the details of the proposal.
Creating the post of minister for culture is not a new idea either. While still CE-elect in April 2012, Leung had proposed the same thing as part of a grand ministerial scheme (deputies for both CS and FS, new bureaus for culture and technology). The pan democrats offered to support the two new bureaus but asked for more time to consider the deputy posts. The compromise was rejected and the whole thing died, though a technology bureau was later created.
Lam has insisted that floating the proposals now was not an indication of her intention to run for a second term. Whether or not that disclaimer is genuine, it was still helpful to remind everyone she is not a lame duck. After all she will still be in charge until midnight 30 June next year, over nine months away.
When I last wrote about this subject in mid-June, I considered financial secretary Paul Chan Mo-po the only serving senior official worth considering but thought he might not be interested in moving out of his comfort zone. How quickly things change in the SAR. Judging by the number of high-profile public appearances he has been making in recent weeks and range of subjects he has been talking about (consumption vouchers, unemployment statistics, economic growth forecasts, vaccination rates, border opening, to name a few) Chan clearly sees himself as a possible candidate and is testing the waters. He is reported to have some powerful backers who feel it is long past time the sun set on the Lam administration.
And out of nowhere a new horse was suddenly pitchforked into the race with the appointment in late June of security secretary John Lee Ka-chiu as chief secretary. Lam was known to have been seeking to pension off previous holder Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and replace him with one of the younger ministers in her cabinet. Lee was not her choice so he must have separate back channels to the powers that be in Beijing. In announcing the appointment, Lam indicated that she expected him to focus on security-related matters while she would continue to be in charge of everything else. It is by no means certain that Lee, or those who put him in place, take a similarly restricted view of his portfolio.
Another name being whispered in the corridors of power recently is that of former police chief, now security secretary, Chris Tang Ping-keung. He is younger than Lee (56 against the latter’s 63) which might work in his favour. Tang may well be a name for the future but he is a bit of a rough diamond at the moment, and could use some polishing. His queries about membership of the Hong Kong Journalists Association are legitimate when put in his own name. But his use of expressions like “people are asking” and “some people are saying” are eerily reminiscent of the tactics used by an orange-topped politician on the other side of the Pacific when challenging the birthplace and religion of Barack Obama. Most people I know would agree that one Trump in a lifetime is enough.
We shouldn’t at this stage entirely write off the prospects of perennial candidate Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. She may have blotted her copybook 20 years ago but they say time heals all wounds. Moreover her loyalty to the Central People’s Government has never wavered. This week Ip will speak at the Foreign Correspondents Club on “Has China kept its promises to Hong Kong?”. (Confident forecast: she will say yes) It is hard to see another name on the list outlined above who could be relied on to handle such a hot topic so competently, and in such a hostile setting. Or be willing to do so.
I would like to squeeze in one more name, that of former justice minister Wong Yan-lung. In 2012 I saw him as a possible dark horse, but he returned to the private sector and relative obscurity. He suddenly surfaced last week at an event organized by the Youth Development Commission saying all the right things. Still a youthful 58 he would be viewed by many as a good choice.
The new Election Committee will have a lot to ponder. But I still think we won’t know all the runners until December. Watch this space.