18 November 2018
Jasper Tsang retains the integrity of a true believer who is respected even by those with different views. That, ironically, may be deemed a liability by Beijing. Photo: HKEJ
Jasper Tsang retains the integrity of a true believer who is respected even by those with different views. That, ironically, may be deemed a liability by Beijing. Photo: HKEJ

What about a real Communist to lead Hong Kong?

Surely the time has come to be honest and have a card-carrying Communist Party member leading Hong Kong. In lieu of a free and fair election for the post maybe it would be better to have a Chief Executive with genuine ideological commitment as opposed to an opportunist who jumped on the Mainland bandwagon for reasons of self-interest.

Some people believe that Hong Kong already has a party member as its Chief Executive but Leung Chun-ying is something rather different. And it’s a difference that matters.

To understand why requires an understanding of the complex nature of Hong Kong’s Communist Party that has led a furtive existence since its formation in 1921 and has never emerged from operating underground.

Yet even its critics concede that the party has often been brave and has contributed to Hong Kong.

The local Communist Party was, for example, the only political organization in Hong Kong to have emerged honorably from the Japanese occupation, where it led the armed resistance. It also played a key role in labor disputes and forming trade unions, as well as providing education to poorer members of the community. The party spread its influence through a complex web of publications and front organizations.

Working according to Leninist principles it created a two-tier structure.

The first tier consisted of core party members under the direct discipline of the Communist Party on the Mainland.

The second tier was formed in the spirit of what later became known as ‘united front’ politics, involving the recruitment of a broad band of sympathizers who were loyal to the party, shared its aims but had credible deniability over membership when confronted by the authorities who were busy cracking down on Communists. The Leninist tactic was to get these people installed in prominent positions from where they could help the party.

The overwhelming likelihood is that Leung belonged (or indeed belongs) to this stratum of the party. To be fair to him, he clambered aboard the party ship at a young age with firmly formed anti-colonial views that made him a suitable target for the party’s recruiters.

However, and crucially, Leung is unlikely to have come under party discipline and may well have been encouraged to remain at arm’s length from party activity. In fact, he got rich working for a British company, having also studied at a British university.

The Communist Party in China, like ruling Communist parties throughout the world, loves to get people like Leung on board. In Lenin’s famous phrase, they need “useful idiots” of this kind.

In the particular circumstances of Hong Kong, the ruthless Communist Party pushed its own members aside to promote the useful idiots in the hope that this would ensure a smooth transition to Chinese rule and not scare a populous, largely made up of families who fled the Communist Revolution.

Thus Tung Chee-hwa was installed as the first Chief Executive, precisely because he was a well known capitalist with a lesser known dependence on Mainland support for his business affairs. Next up was the hapless Donald Tsang, an infinitely malleable former colonial official who was planned to be followed by another capitalist, Henry Tang, but he proved to be more idiot than useful so they had to settle for Leung, who was not part of the original plan precisely because he was seen as being too close to the party.

The outgoing President of Legco, Jasper Tsang Yuk-sing, is quite different. It is impossible for him to have become the principal of a Communist school without being a party member. Indeed his history of political involvement makes it clear that he was in the inner core of the local party. Being the honest person that he is, he never denies party membership, nor does he confirm it.

Tsang is also a knowledgeable Marxist and brother to Tsang Tak-sing, the former Home Affairs Secretary, who was arrested as a schoolboy during the Cultural Revolution-inspired unrest in Hong Kong of the 1960s. The younger Tsang went on to work for the party newspaper Ta Kung Pao. Both brothers are true believers and cannot be accused of joining the party for opportunist reasons.

This makes them very, very different from people like Leung who managed to prosper during the colonial era while keeping a low profile as party sympathizers and, of course, they are nothing like the numerous opportunists who scuttled over to the red flag as soon as they saw the colonial era ending. Stalwarts of the British regime such as Rita Fan, Maria Tam and even lesser personages such as Henry Tang proved themselves to be shameless when switching to the winning side.

The bosses up North much prefer an ideologically vulnerable and thus far easier to control Hong Kong leader, and have no hesitation in making use of the colonial retreads. They are hardly troubled by ideology but remain much concerned over exercising control.

Now Tsang has tentatively suggested he might be interested in the top job. He won’t get it precisely because he is a party member and, as such, is self confident enough to speak his mind and not mindlessly follow the party line because he knows that if he falters he cannot be reminded of his past colonial transgressions when Mainland officials want to haul him back into line. He is however subject to party discipline which exerts another form of pressure.

Nevertheless he is a man of principle and has retained the integrity of a true believer who is respected even by those with different views. This makes him a dangerous person in Beijing’s eyes.

The party can be brutal in dealing with its own people as Tsang’s brother discovered when Beijing allowed Leung to kick him out of office. Other long-term party members have been left sitting on the sidelines while official posts are filled by the malleable turncoats.

Who says irony is not flourishing in the Hong Kong SAR where Communist Party membership can be a liability in a Communist state!

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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