Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, recently commented in public for the first time on the city’s upcoming chief executive election.
The business tycoon refused to publicly back any of the four main contenders in the CE contest, saying all the frontrunners are his old friends and that he that doesn’t want to upset anyone.
Although he refused to reveal his preferences, Li delivered what were undoubtedly the most brilliant, profound, incisive and insightful comments made so far about the CE race by any highly regarded public figure.
Li’s remarks contained no bombshell, but if you read carefully between the lines, you can tell that there were in fact a lot of “Easter eggs” in his words.
Among them, the two most important hidden messages about his stance on the CE race were: 1. He refused to root for Beijing’s favorite Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has been so eagerly seeking Li’s endorsement; 2. He implied that he supports retired judge Woo Kwok-hing’s CE bid.
Now, why do I conclude that Li favors judge Woo for the top job?
Even though Li didn’t even mention Woo in his comments, nor did he drop even the slightest hint as to which candidate he thought was most cut out for the job, the two most essential criteria the tycoon cited for judging whether a person is qualified for the CE office were, I feel, a dead giveaway that his vote will most likely go to Woo.
According to Li, the two most important criteria for measuring whether a candidate is adequate for the office of the Chief Executive are: 1. Whether that person can guarantee the proper implementation of “One Country Two Systems”; 2. Whether that person can uphold the rule of law in Hong Kong.
Here’s the trick: as probably the most successful businessman our city has ever seen, why didn’t Li cite “the ability to restore social harmony, create a better business environment and facilitate economic development” like many other local billionaires and business leaders did? Why did he lay stress on the “proper implementation of One Country Two Systems” and “upholding our rule of law” in particular?
Perhaps the only possible explanation is that Li has noticed something has gone seriously wrong with “One Country Two Systems” and that our rule of law has come under threat in recent years, hence his conviction that the next CE must possess both the ability and the determination to address these two fundamental issues.
And so far among the four main CE candidates, only Woo has listed “putting One Country Two Systems back on the right track” and “upholding our rule of law” as the two urgent tasks on top of his agenda if he gets elected, while other CE hopefuls have largely downplayed, if not totally skirted around, these two issues, probably for fear of upsetting Beijing.
Suffice it to say it is very unlikely that a highly influential man like Li would have publicly outlined his own unique and insightful criteria for choosing the next CE simply off the cuff. He must have thought it through carefully before saying it, and so far only Woo appears to be able to fulfill Li’s requirements. Doesn’t that give us a clue as to which CE candidate that Li might prefer?
Li’s implicit support for Woo echoes my view, which I have been repeating over and over again recently in my column, that Woo, who has been shrugged off by many across our political spectrum as a long shot in the race, is indeed the real deal who may eventually emerge as the surprising winner of the election.
It is because Beijing desperately needs a highly respected judge to assume the CE office so as to restore international confidence in “One Country Two Systems” and the rule of law in Hong Kong, which is hanging by a thread right now.
And Beijing has every reason to want to keep our rule of law intact and reassure the international community that Hong Kong remains an economic entity that is part of but fundamentally different from the rest of the mainland.
It is because China’s prospects for staging another round of impressive growth, or replacing the US, which is now in full strategic retreat, as the world’s new economic powerhouse largely depend on whether Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” strategy can play out according to plan.
To make sure the Belt and Road plan works, what Beijing needs most is not expensive infrastructure, such as new railways and ports, but rather, a city on its soil which can fulfill the role as an internationally recognized arbitration center for trade disputes among countries, and which has a well-established common law system that encourages foreign investors and exporters to conclude their business deals there.
Needless to say, Hong Kong is the only city on Chinese soil that can fulfill the dual roles. And from Beijing’s point of view, putting a seasoned judge in charge of Hong Kong can undoubtedly serve as reassurance for the rest of the world that authorities are determined to maintain Hong Kong’s unique status.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 21
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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