19 January 2019
James Tien speaks at a news conference after being stripped of his membership in China's top political advisory body on Wednesday. Photo: RFA
James Tien speaks at a news conference after being stripped of his membership in China's top political advisory body on Wednesday. Photo: RFA

Expulsion can be a blessing in disguise for Tien

It is said that anyone who accepts an official appointment from the Communist Party must always yield and submit himself to the party. Otherwise, his political career is doomed. James Tien Pei-chun is a testimony to this golden rule.

The Liberal Party legislator has never minced his words when criticizing chief executive Leung Chun-ying. In June 2013, he predicted “it’s absolutely possible that Leung will not be able to finish his term”. After that year’s massive July 1 march, Tien even confronted the Hong Kong top leader during a question-and-answer session at the Legislative Council and asked him point-blank if he would quit his job.

Over the weekend Tien did it again — he asked Leung to consider stepping down in view of the student protests. On the same day, former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, now a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), reiterated his support for Leung at a high-profile news conference.

Beijing has given its full backing to Leung and drawn the bottom line that any challenge to Leung’s leadership, even if posed orally, is a blatant revolt against the central authorities. Now Tien has to pay for his words.

The eighth plenary meeting of the CPPCC National Committee passed a motion on Wednesday to expel him from his official duty as a CPPCC member. Yet I wonder if the word “duty” may be inappropriate: being a CPPCC member means nothing more than a rubber stamp.

Interestingly, rumors about his dismissal came Tuesday, a day before the vote of the plenary meeting. How can anyone be so sure about the result before a vote? Tuesday night, Beijing’s liaison office summoned several senior members of the Liberal Party as well as Michael Tien Puk-sun, Tien’s younger brother who is also a legislative councilor, to explain the rationale behind the decision. The following day, CPPCC members passed, or rubber-stamped, the motion (267 votes in favor, two votes against and three votes abstaining) in Beijing.

With Tien’s official expulsion, it is clear that Beijing has a way of controlling the result even before the voting, which is nothing but a formality.

This also helps explain why Beijing won’t allow civil nomination for chief executive candidates in the 2017 election: it must be absolutely sure that its handpicked loyalist wins.

Being a typical “second-generation rich” (a coined term referring to the offspring of a super-rich who inherits family wealth and fame), the elder of the Tien brothers is ambitious and started his official career in the 1980s thanks to his textile tycoon father’s connections. Yet unlike many of his peers — the so-called “old money” guys who tend to show full political allegiance — Tien insists on having his own take on vital issues.

He is best known for his sudden “defection” in 2003 when the embattled Tung administration was on the brink of an impasse over the enactment of Article 23 of the Basic Law which concerns national security. On the eve of a LegCo vote, Tien made a U-turn and resigned from the Executive Council. Knowing the bill stood no chance of passing without the Liberal Party’s support, the government was forced to shelve the proposal, a prelude to Tung’s early retirement in March 2005.

Tien won the hearts of Hongkongers and Beijing tolerated his “betrayal” back then and even appointed him to the CPPCC National Committee to get him to support the SAR government, partially due to his influence in the territory’s business sector. I wonder if such a benign treatment encouraged him to become bolder with his comments.

In recent years Tien has been trying to strike a balance between staying politically correct according to Beijing’s playbook and speaking for Hong Kong people, and unsurprisingly, more often than not his remarks were too open or radical from a pro-government perspective.

Given that, the central authorities increasingly viewed him as an “unguided missile” that might get off track and run counter to Beijing’s intentions. His renewed call for Leung to step down was a clear sign.

Thus, sacking him from the CPPCC is a subtle but stern reminder that Beijing has many options at its disposal when it comes to taming and silencing disobedient political figures.

But Tien can heave a sigh of relief.

Beijing is leaving the door open: it continues to regard him as a patriot who “loves the country and Hong Kong”, a political prerequisite for anyone who wishes to run for chief executive.

Will he still be nominated for the 2017 election? And if so, does he stand a chance to win?

It’s difficult to make any judgment at present but one thing for sure is that given Tien’s personality, he will never retreat quietly from the political sphere after the setback. And since Beijing still sees him as a friend (CPPCC chairman Yu Zhengsheng, also a member of the standing committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, reportedly asked CPPCC members to console Tien), it’s possible that his political career may not stop at being a lawmaker.

After the expulsion motion was passed, Tien’s response in front of the media was calm. He told reporters that he would also quit as Liberal Party leader so as to speak more freely in the future to voice out Hong Kong people’s thoughts and views.

I suggest that he put forward a comprehensive “election manifesto” to address the numerous failures of the Leung administration, to demonstrate his ability to lead and assure Beijing that he is not an “unguided missile”.

Among all local politicians, Tien is clean and outspoken and enjoys support from the business and industrial sectors. His anti-Leung remarks, although in defiance of Beijing’s views, have touched a chord among many locals who have lost faith in Leung. Tien made it clear that he would not withdraw his remarks.

The incident has earned him some public support, which may help him become a CE candidate three years from now. But whether he is allowed to run can be a gauge of whether the shape of things in Hong Kong is still different from that on the mainland.

Lam Hang-chi’s commentary was first published in the Oct. 30 issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. 

Translation by Frank Chen

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James Tien says he will not withdraw his remarks asking the Hong Kong chief executive to step down. Photo: Internet

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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