The Return of Zinoviev

In 1924 in the UK it was a letter allegedly from a Russian leader to the Communist Party of Britain shortly before a general election. In 1972 in the USA it was a sudden statement from National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that "Peace is at hand" in Vietnam shortly before the Presidential election.

In both cases the truth emerged only after the elections but not before they had had a significant effect on the result. The Zinoviev letter turned out to be a complete forgery but reports of its existence and contents resulted in electoral catastrophe for the Communist Party and contributed to the fall of the Labour Government. The purported breakthrough in peace talks with North Vietnam turned out to be completely fictitious (the war ground on for another three years) but not before it had turned Nixon’s probable win into a landslide victory.

Indeed the latter case gave rise to an expression that has entered the political lexicon – the "October surprise" so called because the US Presidential election is held in early November. The idea is that shortly before the scheduled vote you make an accusation so serious that it affects the outcome. The trick is in the timing. It must be early enough for word to spread to the electorate, but late enough that it can’t be checked out in time to be proven false.

It is against this background that students of political history will be examining some of the allegations made against the two front runners in the race to be Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive.

The mud thrown so far at Henry Tang comprises three strands: before marriage he fathered a child out of wedlock with another woman; he has had a string of affairs during his marriage; and he has a large illegal basement under his house.

All of these allegations have turned out to be true, the candidate himself has admitted them publically and sought forgiveness from his spouse (given) and from the public (so far withheld).

The mud thrown at CY Leung also comprises three strands: that in the past he had an affair with one of his campaign staff; that he had an undeclared conflict of interest in the design competition for West Kowloon; and that he (or campaign staff on his behalf) have consorted with triad leaders in an effort to affect the outcome of the election in some unspecified way.

Reports of the reputed affair have faded away because no one believes them.

A Select Committee of the Legislative Council has been formed to investigate the 2001 design competition. It expects to take at least six weeks to reach a conclusion. Even if, as he confidently predicts, Mr Leung is cleared eventually, this will not be until after the election and meanwhile the mere sight of him being called to give evidence under oath during the campaign may well affect his popularity with the public. Some mud will stick. Presumably that is why events of 10 years ago known about at the time have suddenly been dredged up.

In passing, it is worth noting that more than half the members serving on the Committee to investigate an allegation of conflict of interest themselves suffer such a conflict, having nominated candidates in the CE election. Have the words "double standard" lost all meaning?

The third allegation has taken on a life of its own. Mr Tang claims to take it seriously and has sought help from the police. The Students Union of Hong Kong University has spent a large sum on newspaper advertisements challenging Mr Leung (but not anyone else) to clarify a reputed gangster’s involvement, and there have been conflicting reports about the dinner the gentleman concerned attended. The Heung Yee Kuk at first denied having anything to do with organising the dinner, but one member has now admitted he did. The Kuk denies having invited the delightfully named "Shanghai Boy". Former ICAC Commissioner Fanny Law has also denied inviting him.

This comes down to credibility: the Kuk is an organisation famous for the integrity of its senior officers; the ICAC is an organisation famous for its defence of illegal structures. Or have I got muddled again?

Some commentators and indeed Election Committee members have said that the two candidates are equally embroiled in scandal. That seems a little harsh on Mr Leung on the evidence presented so far.

Be that as it may, with a week to go there is still time for another "October surprise". My advice to the HKU students is that if it is a letter from someone called Zinoviev they should treat it with caution.