Last Chance Saloon

The two leading candidates for Chief Executive are poised to come out swinging in the 2012 election campaign, but they both bring baggage with them and both need to unload it so that the real battle lines can emerge.

Former Executive Council Convenor Leung Chun Ying formally declared his candidacy yesterday. Former Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang is expected to do so in the next few days.

In the case of Mr Leung, the potential skeleton in his closet comes from the rumour that he is a secret member of the Communist Party. Quite why membership of China's ruling party should be considered a negative attribute given Hong Kong's position as a part of the People's Republic for the past 14 and a half years is a question for another day. But it is unquestionably seen as a negative by many Hong Kong people for historical reasons.

Indeed, so powerful is this rumour that some high profile persons are reported to have aligned themselves with his rival purely on the strength of it despite their doubts about various aspects of Mr Tang's own candidacy.

Mr Leung has in the past denied the rumour both publically and privately, but he now needs to do so again in the most emphatic manner possible and challenge all comers to produce evidence to the contrary. It would be helpful if he could also offer a plausible explanation as to why the rumour has endured for so many years despite his previous denials, though we can hardly ask him to prove a negative.

The case of Mr Tang is no less striking. He has already confessed publically to having strayed in his marriage, although his now departed PR advisers pointedly refused to clarify in English whether he was admitting "a mistake" or "some mistakes" (the Chinese version of the statement is ambiguous). He has apologized and his wife has loyally and courageously forgiven him.

But there is more to the story. Similar to the Leung Party membership allegation, there have been rumours for many years that a pre marriage relationship by Mr Tang produced a son.

Challenged on camera by the media whether he had fathered one or more children by women other than his wife, Mr Tang pointedly refused to reply and instead turned his head away, scowled, and said he had already dealt with the subject and would not elaborate.

That will not do. This is a boil that needs to be lanced. After all, it was Mr Tang himself who said that a candidate for CE should be held to the highest moral standards. It is bad enough that he has more or less admitted having a string of affairs. If there are stories doing the rounds that there might be children out there, candidate Tang needs to make a clean breast of things to clear the decks and nail the rumours once and for all.

Once the Leung and Tang skeletons are out of the closet, or exposed as bogus, then they and the whole community can get down to the real business of the election. We should be looking at and comparing their personalities, their experience, their character. We should be asking ourselves who would be able to cope best in a crisis. Who has the best grasp of the key issues, who has the better set of policies for addressing Hong Kong's problems.

All being well, there will be some "Presidential" style debates moderated by a neutral academic or respected media personality with the same question being put to each candidate with opportunity for time limited answer and rebuttal. The questions themselves should come from members of the public but only after being screened by the moderator. One of the debates, or at least a substantial section of one of them, should be conducted in English and another in Putonghua. After all we are a world city, home to many non Chinese speakers, and the successful candidate will be representing us globally and with the Central Government in Beijing.

Let us judge them by their performances in the spotlight.

But before we get to that stage, let's clean out these mischievous rumours once and for all. And the best disinfectant for the purpose is the strong sunlight of public disclosure.