Health or family.
That’s the usual excuse a beleaguered politician gives when he is forced to bow out of office.
In March 2005 then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said the “acute leg pain” he had been long suffering deteriorated and so he must seek an early retirement.
That happened not too long after mainland cadres gave him a public dressing-down for poor governance.
When the incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying, Tung’s protégé, dropped the bombshell last Friday that he would choose to remain on the sidelines in next year’s CE race, he cited “family reasons”.
“I must protect my family,” Leung declared solemnly.
That’s another setback for Beijing.
Party patriarch Deng Xiaoping, who conceived “one country, two systems”, once proclaimed that “Chinese can govern Hong Kong as well as Brits, if not better”.
But none of the three leaders in the two decades post-handover had the luck to finish two full terms with their reputation intact.
In the 2012 race, observers believe Xi Jinping heeded Tung’s advice and signaled his preference for Leung in a last-minute reversal.
His choice bewildered not a few members in the election committee but still Beijing’s yesmen hastily ditched Henry Tang in favor of Leung.
Given that Leung was enthusiastically paying district visits and talking up his lofty new visions a day before his shocking announcement, it won’t be too far-fetched to suspect that he himself, too, had been kept in the dark.
The no-ifs-or-buts veto from Zhongnanhai apparently came as a shock to him as it did to Hong Kong people.
By not granting Leung a second term Xi has obliquely admitted his misstep four years ago, though he is doing so under the pretext of Leung’s sudden outpouring of care for his wife and children.
Hong Kong’s political circus has just had its most dramatic show in years.
Now that CY Leung has dropped out, even the most politically apathetic Hongkongers are now speculating on why Beijing has ditched its trusted henchman.
Hongkongers, be careful what you wish for, it just might come true. And it did.
Some see Beijing’s surprising move as a reconciliatory one, after four years of stubborn tenacity in governance has fermented more troubles.
Still, there will be questions aplenty about the shape of things to come.
We don’t have a crystal ball for that, but we suggest two scenarios.
An old regime with a new CE
The first is “new CE, old regime”.
Beijing wants a new figure, a “Leung Chun-ying 2.0” who is better in the popularity stakes, but all the heavy-handedness will remain.
Stifling of freedoms and purges of the opposition can be achieved without provoking too much outrage if the entire administration is no longer led by a “cunning wolf” but by a “smiling tiger”.
If that is the case, then it’s good news for Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who has already had a swift U-turn about her political career: she told media that it behooves her to “reconsider” her retirement decision since the circumstances have changed and her boss has decided to retire.
Being Leung’s deputy, Lam can easily inherit his election base while also garnering support from the civil servants. She also commands substantial following from the labor and welfare sectors.
She has also proven her ability to press ahead with highly controversial policies while somehow maintaining decent popularity ratings: her score stood at 53.2 in the latest University of Hong Kong survey. (Leung’s support rating, 35, continues to hover below the warning line of 45.)
We have reason to believe that Lam is now Beijing’s “Plan B” after it became clear that Leung would be hard put to arrive at the 601-vote threshold for reelection, amid the strong anti-Leung sentiment even among pro-establishment bigwigs.
Beijing is not backing down; it’s just being more pragmatic.
And guess who Leung would recommend to Beijing, Lam or Financial Secretary John Tsang, when his feud with the latter has long been an open secret at Tamar?
Lam has also stated that “whether the chief executive’s governing vision … as well as his policies could be sustained” is a major consideration when pondering her own bid.
These words are her public assurance to Leung and her mainland bosses that she would carry on the intransigent approach mandated by Beijing, and therefore Hongkongers should not pin too much hope on her.
As for the other aspirants, like New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip, they won’t pose a serious threat to Lam.
Ip is far less popular than Lam and she carries some very unfavorable luggage from the past – many still remember vividly her numerous blunders as security minister in the Article 23 hard-sell.
Ip has, with Leung’s pullout, become the opposition’s collateral target with new taglines like “anyone but R IP” and “female 689”, a derogatory reference of the number of votes Leung got four years ago.
She is also a loner within the pro-Beijing camp, and many see her political ambitions in an unflattering light.
If people like Ip can be allowed to run, why would Beijing bother dissuading Leung to seek another term in the first place?
Also, it is Beijing’s long-time policy that a chief executive should not have any party affiliation.
Another Tsang administration? Not likely
The second scenario is a comparatively merrier one, though we think it’s less likely: after a sober reflection, Beijing decides to extend an olive branch for genuine harmony.
John Tsang, a figure on good terms with both sides of the political spectrum, is allowed to become Leung’s successor.
Then we will see the kind of honeymoon period during the initial days of the Donald Tsang administration. Governance will be a lot easier and everyone gets a break from the choking stalemate.
That said, just like how his old classmate at Harvard had failed Hongkongers, there’s no guarantee how long “Mr. Pringles” can ride the wave of his popularity.
People embrace Tsang because they hate Leung and also because as the financial chief, he didn’t have to deal with all the thorny political issues.
But as the new CE, he will have to, and, all the old woes are likely to return to the surface.
Back to reality. It is believed that Tsang has been hesitating to announce his bid even after his resignation because he is still awaiting the green light from Beijing.
It would be unwise to shoot him down so early, as it just takes Beijing a little string-pulling on election day to execute Plan B to grant Lam the SAR stewardship.
It would be a breeze for Tsang to get 150 nominations to enter the game, with backing from the business sector and some democrats.
But Tsang, it seems, could only win if Lam suddenly gets cold feet, which is very unlikely.
The irony is that Tsang may stand a better chance of winning if Leung, not Lam, was his opponent.
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