21 April 2019
James Tien says he never regrets shooting down a national security bill in 2003. A file photo shows then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa (extreme right) along with Tien (5th from right) and other officials after the bill's withdrawal. Photos: HKEJ
James Tien says he never regrets shooting down a national security bill in 2003. A file photo shows then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa (extreme right) along with Tien (5th from right) and other officials after the bill's withdrawal. Photos: HKEJ

‘Naughty kid’ who shot down Article 23 pledges to stand by HK

James Tien Pei-chun seems to be perfectly happy with the moniker “Naughty kid in the pro-Beijing camp”, which he earned after he almost single-handedly shot down the Tung Chee-hwa regime’s bid in 2003 to enact the controversial Article 23 of the Basic Law, which deals with national security.

Tien had been a member of the Tung cabinet at that time.

Fast-forward to the present, Tien, 69, who is now honorary chairman of the business-friendly Liberal Party, is ready to bow out from the legislature after offering the first position on the party’s Legco elections nomination form to a younger party member, Dominic Lee Tsz-king, for the New Territories East geographical constituency.

“It’s very likely that our party cannot grab two seats there, as in that case we need to get some 75,000 votes,” Tien told the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

“I’m prepared to retire when our party can send another outspoken man into the chamber, who is much younger, shares the same ideology with us and dares to call a spade a spade,” he said in an interview. 

Tien has been a lawmaker most of the time in the past thirty years, and is justifiably proud to say that he has served the people with a steady conscience.

The entrepreneur and prominent political figure was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Tien’s father, textile tycoon Francis Tien Yuan-hao, served as an unofficial member of the Legco from 1970s to ‘80s.

His younger brother Michael Tien Puk-sun, who is the founder of the fashion chain G2000, has been a colleague inside the chamber for the past four years.

Tien was appointed by the then Governor David Wilson to the Legco in 1988, marking the start of his own political career, when the colonial authorities aimed to foster the territory’s representative governance. Yet he was not reappointed three years later.

He returned to the legislature representing the industrial functional constituency after a by-election in 1993 and won his first direct election in 2004. Tien lost his seat four years later but had another triumphant comeback in the 2012 elections.

The lawmaker sees himself as a government ally, but that doesn’t hold him back from “betraying” Beijing and the SAR authorities at some crucial junctures.

“I’m conservative most of the time but I’m not Beijing’s yesman. I always side with Hongkongers over major issues,” Tien says.

Article 23 and the ‘ABC bandwagon’

Locals remember Tien for two incidents.

He resigned from the Executive Council after half a million protesters took to the streets on July 1, 2003, when Tung, defying people’s calls, wanted to force Article 23 through the legislature, as the bill’s second reading was scheduled on July 9.

Tien’s party asked the government to defer the bill’s second reading.

Tien’s last minute resignation caught Tung off guard. Lacking Liberal Party’s support in Legco, the embattled leader had to drop the bill indefinitely, after a bitter emergency meeting in the wee hours of July 7.

“I didn’t shilly-shally too much about the matter. What I was appealing was to defer the bill, so that members of the public could have more time for discussion. Nor do I regret my decision at all.”

There were some 50,000 protesters rallying outside the former Legco building and near Statue Square in the early morning when Tung announced the government’s plans.

“There were only 4,000 policemen there and things could have gone out of control if the government insisted upon enacting the Article 23 bill,” Tien recalls.

The government subsequently announced on September 5 that year that it was withdrawing the bill.

Tien says that each time he met Beijing officials, they would make it a point to comment about his “blockage” of the bill.

He says he took the decision as he wanted Hongkongers to preserve their way of life.

But he adds that he doesn’t support any calls for pursuit of independence for Hong Kong. 

“The separatists belong to the absolute minority and they won’t get too many votes, maybe just a few thousand, this time.”

Tien made headlines again two years ago, in the thick of the Umbrella Movement, after he was stripped of his post at the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body, for demanding, repeatedly, that Leung Chun-ying should step down.

The Liberal Party legislator has never minced words when criticizing Leung, Hong Kong’s incumbent chief executive, telling him point-blank to quit his post.

Beijing’s callous expulsion from CPPCC has only added to the popularity of Tien.

“Beijing’s logic may be that the business sector must always support the establishment, which was, the governor and London before 1997 and now the chief executive and the central authorities. When Beijing says Leung is competent for the top job, you have to toe the line and repeat he is competent, even though he is not,” Tien says. 

Tien says the Liberal Party seldom gets preferential treatment from the Liaison Office during elections.

“But I have something the other pro-establishment lawmakers hardly have: Hong Kong people’s recognition.”

This is increasingly so when Hong Kong gets more politically charged and divided.

“In the past I was labeled a bloodsucker because I represented employers and the business sector, but now I have become a hero, simply because I blast Leung Chun-ying.”

Not eyeing the top job

Tien is among the rumored chief executive hopefuls, with some observers considering him a “dark horse” in the race for Hong Kong’s top political job.

However, Tien denies any such ambitions.

“I have no crush on that job,” he says. “Anyone but CY is fine, be it Carrie Lam, John Tsang or Jasper Tsang.”

“I’m not that diligent and don’t like to be buried in trivial matters. The CE has two bosses to serve, Beijing and Hongkongers, and he has to bridge the two sides, which seldom see eye to eye in politics and governance.”

On the shape of things to come, Tien doesn’t believe Beijing will allow a ruling party to take shape in Hong Kong, which has been seen by some as the only way out of the city’s perpetual political impasse.

“I heard before the handover that Beijing’s strategy is to fragment local political groups, even the pro-Beijing coalition, and no party, not even the DAB, is allowed to get half of the Legco seats. Beijing is worried that a ruling party may turn Hong Kong into a de facto separate political entity.”

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 19.

Joshua But contributed to the story. 

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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James Tien epeaks to reporters in 2014 after he was stripped of his membership in China’s top political advisory body. Photo: RFA

Tien (center), son of a textile tycoon cum lawmaker, is a founding member of the Liberal Party that represents the city’s business sector. Photo: Liberal Party

Tien and his younger brother Michael, who is a lawmaker from the New People’s Party, wave to reporters inside the Legco chamber on July 16. Photo: China Review News

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