Ghosts of CEs Past and Future

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Two days after launching a star-studded political-cum-think tank called Our Hong Kong Foundation in the city, former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa flew to Beijing to attend a welcome dinner hosted by President Xi Jinping for the visiting United States President, Barack Obama, at the Great Hall of the People on November 12. Seated at the head table, Tung was sharing the political limelight with top leaders including four Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee members. Coming hot on the heels of the inauguration of the Foundation, Tung’s presence at the Great Hall said something about his new portfolio on Hong Kong affairs, in addition to his unique role in China-US diplomacy.

Hong Kong think tank, China think tank
Now a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Tung ranks as a state leader in the Chinese hierarchy. Seen from that light, there are good reasons to believe the Foundation is not just another think tank. It could be one of the new policy initiatives by the Xi leadership aimed to cope with the new situations in the city in the post-Occupy era at a time when the protest is showing signs of the beginning of an end. Media may still conveniently brand it as a think tank. The truth is its role will go far beyond pooling the wisdoms and visions of top brains for Hong Kong towards determining a long term vision. It has already set eyes on the burning issue facing the city, namely the Umbrella Movement.

Speaking at the inauguration on November 10, Tung made it clear one of the Foundation’s most urgent missions was to win support for the government’s 2017 Chief Executive plan, whose detailed arrangements would have to fall within the controversial framework set out by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on August 31. Other priority tasks include how to boost social mobility for the younger generation and groom future political leaders.

At 77, Tung has kept his head down since he stood down from the post of Chief Executive his second term in March 2005, citing sore legs. His second term was supposed to end in July 2007. Tung changed tact since September. He stole the media limelight when he led a powerful delegation comprised of tycoons including Li Ka-shing, Lee Shau-kee and Peter Woo Kwong-ching to visit Beijing in September, during which they were met with Xi. About the same time, he raised some eyebrows when he unveiled his plan to establish a think tank.

Given his cautious style and knowledge of Chinese politics, it is inconceivable that he had not sought the blessing of Beijing for his de facto political comeback in Hong Kong politics. It is indeed highly likely he has been asked by Beijing to play a role in restoring stability in the city devastated by the political earthquake erupted on September 28 and its aftershocks.

This is because the city is verging on ungovernable nearly 30 months after Leung Chun-ying took the helm. Against a sea of grievances over political, social and economic issues, the Occupy Central plan has turned into a weeks-long protest under the banner of Umbrella Movement, whose impact and implications look unfathomable in the short term. What appears to be certain, nevertheless, is that Hong Kong is not, and will not be, the same. Beijing’s worries about whether Captain Leung will be able to hold the rudder of the Hong Kong ship firm have prompted a quick change of tact.

No choice
It is anybody’s guess as to whether Xi has given high scores to Leung for handling the Occupy protests. In times of crisis, the last thing he wants is intense speculation about the fate of Leung, which will be fuelled further by any ambivalent comment on Leung. Any pragmatist leaders would have no choice but to give full backing to Leung, at least in public and for now. That said, they would also have to think hard on the capability of Leung in governing the city in the face of the difficulties and challenges he is confronting. And if the answer is a maybe, or even no, the next question is what could and should be done.

Better to be feared than loved
If anything, the expulsion of former Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun from the CPPCC for his calls for Leung to resign last month is indicative of the depth of fears in Beijing about feuding within the pro-establishment camp. The rivalry between the Leung camp and his rival in the CE race, Henry Tang Ying-yen, has shown no signs of significant easing since Leung took power. Already faced with an increasingly hostile and confrontational pan-democratic opposition, Beijing is anxiously keen to rebuild its united front base in the city by first boosting the solidarity of the so-called “loving China, loving Hong Kong” camp. The idea to kick Tien out may seem unwise and counter-productive to the goal of strengthening unity. But by doing so, Beijing hopes to send a no-nonsense message to Leung’s critics within the pro-establishment for them to stop infighting.
Old batteries
It is therefore not surprising Tang and his election campaign head, former Monetary Authority chief executive Joseph Yam Chi-kong, are among the 88 advisers of the Foundation. Former Democrat lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen has emerged as the lone pan-democrat in the body. Their involvement, however, seems to be more symbolic than substantive. If there is a feeling of deja vu at the Foundation’s inauguration, it is because of the re-emergence of old faces who had closely worked with Tung during his reign. But ridiculed as “old batteries”, their political capacity in helping to solve the present problems has been greeted with doubt, not without good cause. That Tung has only been able to lure his former teammates and long-time friends to the Foundation speaks to the difficulties in building a broad political coalition outside the government in view of the longstanding tension and frictions in the political landscape.
Help now, help themselves later

In view of Leung’s unpopularity and a list of governance difficulties including an “un-cooperative” pan-democratic opposition, it will be a tall order for Tung and the think tank to help the Leung team govern effectively in the next 30 months. However brilliant and sensible the Foundation’s policy proposals may be, the harsh reality is that they may remain just proposals given the “can’t do” spirit prevalent in the SAR. A more realistic task for them is that it will start pooling political talent for the post-2017 government.

Enter Antony Leung Kam-chung. The former financial secretary who resigned days after the July 1 march in 2003 and now appears to be ready to make a political comeback. He emerged as a key figure in the Foundation. In a speech at the inauguration ceremony, Leung spoke as if he was delivering an election manifesto. He spoke out on situations, such as social mobility of youngsters, that have been aggravated by policy fiascos.

Make no mistake: The Foundation is simply too big to function as an election engine. But with such political heavyweights as Tung and elites from different sectors behind, it could serve as a political platform for Leung to show his political calibre, visions and ideas when the issue of the post-2017 leadership is given more urgency by Xi.