With CY no longer available to kick around, who's next?

December 16, 2016 09:46
Regina Ip announced Thursday that she will run for Hong Kong's top job next year. The move came after the city's incumbent leader, CY Leung, said last Friday that he won't seek re-election. Photo: HKEJ

When a resentful Richard Nixon lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, a defeat he blamed on biased media coverage, he castigated reporters during his concession speech by saying "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore". Likewise, Hong Kong people soon won't have Leung Chun-ying to kick around anymore. A figurative whoop of joy was heard across much of the city last Friday when Leung announced during a hastily-called press conference that he won't seek re-election as chief executive.

Shocked disbelief quickly turned to exhilaration. Some of Leung's arch-enemies popped open champagne, others called on everyone to rejoice, and there were some who warned people to be wary of Leung's real motives. But the euphoria over Leung's exit as top leader soon gave way to a search for another attack target. There's no such thing as harmony in free societies. Politicians who want to stay in the game need enemies, real or created, to attract voters. This is especially true in semi-democratic Hong Kong where our peculiar political system makes it impossible for the opposition to become the ruling party.

Now that Leung won't be around much longer to kick, Hong Kong's opposition needs someone else to fill that role. Having a whipping boy is essential for the opposition to energize its voter base. That's why when Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told the media a day after Leung withdrew from the race that she will consider running, the opposition quickly pounced by mocking her as a Leung clone.

With ABC – Anyone But CY – gone, opposition leaders labelled Lam as another ABC – Anyone But Carrie. The opposition had already labeled Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who announced her candidacy this Thursday, as R.IP – Rest In Peace – a word play of her name to mock her as being dead. Glaringly, the opposition has not labeled Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who resigned on Monday and is widely expected to enter the race, as ABJ – Anyone But John. Nor has it given any label to retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who declared his candidacy on October 27.

There's a simple reason for this. Lam and Ip are considered Beijing's people. Judge Woo is not considered as a candidate who can win, and Tsang is considered as an enemy of Leung. The enemy of your enemy is your friend. But how long can this political love affair of convenience with the opposition last if Tsang becomes chief executive? That's anyone's guess. But only in fairy tales are there knights in shining armor who dislodge hated rulers and unite the community so that everyone can live happily after.

Many people are under an illusion fanned by Leung's enemies, a list that includes some media organizations, that his departure will usher in a feel-good factor that can unite Hong Kong's bitterly polarized society. It's true that Leung is a despised leader although if you ask people why, many will simply repeat the mantra that he is divisive without being able to pinpoint the exact reasons that make him divisive.

As I have said before, Leung's unpopularity is a product of his personality rather than his policies, many of which deal with livelihood issues that would otherwise resonate with ordinary Hong Kong people. His departure has left the March 2017 election wide open but it's most likely a battle between Lam and Tsang.

Lam is seen as a steady hand who knows the government inside out, is trusted by the central government, and who will likely continue with many of Leung's policies. Tsang also knows the workings of the government but is less trusted by the central government. This explains widespread speculation that he has received a red light from Beijing. But he is by far the most popular. And as a laid-back official who many see as far less of a hardliner than Leung, he offers a starkly different governing style than Lam. But is that necessarily the governing style Beijing wants despite five turbulent years of Leung?

The opposition's capture of 325 out of 1,200 seats in last Sunday's election of the committee that picks the chief executive has strengthened Tsang's hand. If the opposition decides not to field its own candidate and play kingmaker instead, its votes will more likely go to Tsang than Lam.

Beijing would be wise not to show its hand as to who it supports until much later in the game. Backing a loser would be a huge embarrassment, especially now that the opposition believes it has already humiliated Beijing with the success of its ABC – Anyone But CY – campaign, and its record-breaking capture of over a quarter of the Election Committee seats.

Whoever becomes the next chief executive, an elated opposition can claim it has the people’s backing to demand that Beijing replaces its August 31, 2014 political reform framework with one that allows genuine universal suffrage with no screening of chief executive candidates. This would, in effect, mean a degree of self-determination that could produce an opposition member as chief executive.

Can the next chief executive, whoever that may be, deliver such a tall order? Anything can happen, as we saw with Leung's departure, but it is unlikely Beijing will allow a free-for-all chief executive election. I personally don't think Beijing will give top priority to political reform after the chief executive election. Rather, it will want to see Article 23 national security legislation passed to ensure the suppression of the independence movement.

Whatever happens, the opposition will continue to look for attack targets. It needs them as it would otherwise become irrelevant as a political force. Hong Kong may become less divisive without Leung. But political harmony? No way.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.