The Sound of Silence

The events of recent weeks have radically changed the political landscape of Hong Kong.

For a long time the idea has been consistently put forward that the only thing that mattered in the forthcoming Chief Executive election was the opinion in Beijing about who should be awarded the mandate of heaven. It is now apparent that the opinion of Hong Kong people – even though they have no direct vote – will also play an important part in determining the outcome.

Beijing's vote is still the one that counts, of course, in the sense that no candidate unacceptable to the Central Government could ever win irrespective of the extent of local support. But acceptability of the candidate to the Hong Kong public appears to be also important now. In the words of Michael Tien on RTHK’s Backchat programme recently, it has become "a necessary, but not sufficient, condition". In other words, without public support you cannot win. Even with it, you still need Beijing's support.

As proof of this we need only examine the conduct of the actual or potential candidates.

Most striking was the extraordinary confession by former Chief Secretary Henry Tang that he had strayed in his marriage. Word of his alleged close relationship with a senior Administrative Officer in the government had been circulating for some time within the civil service and in some media circles, and must also have made its way to Beijing.

But the need to come out and make a public statement about the affair now can only have arisen from a desire to preempt the news coming out and impacting on him negatively when the election campaign proper begins in a couple of months time. Given that the rumour has been current in political circles for a while, the only party to whom the saga might come as a shock is the general public here at home. So clearly in Mr Tang's mind, their opinion does matter.

First reaction was inevitably a fluttering of schadenfreude, as there are always some who like to see the powerful dragged down. Then there were the jokes ("Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Henry Tang… at last Hong Kong is a real world city"). But the strongest initial impression will have been the dignity and inner strength displayed by the candidate and the loyalty of his wife.

The other three potential candidates have also been addressing public opinion, albeit less dramatically. For months now it has hardly been possible to turn on the TV or read a newspaper without seeing Rita Fan speaking out on important issues of the day. Her place at the top of the public opinion polls has also kept alive her possible candidacy despite the criticism of her "flip flopping" about her intentions.

Similarly CY Leung, for so long the low profile adviser, has for some months now been meeting the widest possible range of Hong Kong people and familiarizing himself with their core concerns. His poll ratings have steadily improved and he now runs a strong second to Mrs Fan.

Less surprising has been the sight of Albert Ho preparing to enter the race so as to force the other candidates to debate publically all the key issues. In the unlikely event he topped the polls, he would still not be acceptable to Beijing, but his prime objective – widest possible public engagement – would have been achieved.

The trouble with skeletons and closets is that once the door has been prised open, you never know what might emerge next. No doubt Mrs Fan and Messrs Tang, Leung and Ho are all examining their consciences to make sure all is clear or at least already confessed.

Meanwhile, the appointment of an attractive female senior Administrative Officer to a lucrative post in a chamber of commerce, apparently at the behest of Mr Tang's campaign manager, has inevitably sparked speculation.

First to complain about the lack of proper procedure and transparency was James Tien. However after some quite strong initial remarks he quickly fell silent. Alas his silence tells us more eloquently than any words might have done what might lay behind the story.

As and when these individuals do formally register themselves as candidates for Chief Executive, no doubt the media will return to all these subjects and the search for more skeletons will resume with gusto.