CE to Hong Kong: Love me to leave me

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Democratic reform in its present form seems like a lost cause. But maybe the CE has a plan to convince the pro-establishment to stick with him so they can replace him. A paradox may save CY Leung in 2017.


Something seems to be changing in how our CE, CY Leung, is looking at his role as he heads into an election year. The marked difference between the Policy Address and Budget’s pre-amble and conclusions and how they speak to Hong Kong seem to augur a change in approach for our senior leadership.

Many have noted the CE’s Policy Address was all One Belt One Road and contained zero on recent discord in Hong Kong.  This week he went to Beijing to ‘report’ to his superiors there, and reportedly spoke only topics of bilateral interest. No fishball, no by-election talk (reportedly).

This contrasted with the FS’s Budget Speech that spoke to the conflict in Hong Kong, the aspirations of the people, and Hong Kong’s history as a source of strength to solve the problems in our future.

Mr Tsang surprised many with his candid comments. I suspect many who might have been willing to pull at contrarian threads in the Budget to unravel the government’s reputation may have held back out of respect for Mr Tsang’s comments.

Divide and rule

One who lashed out at his preamble and conclusion was Regina Ip, a potential CE candidate and competitor to a potential Tsang candidacy, who may have seen the wave of popularity rolling through local media and sought to stem the tide. Yet another surplus allowed the FS to have something for everyone (tax relief, handouts, corporate welfare) and he addressed the political and existential issues facing Hong Kong. He is no doubt strongest potential rival in a field that could include, likely and dark horses, names like Carrie Lam (said she won’t), Jasper Tsang (previously no, but maybe given anger re brother), Anthony Leung (keen), a Tien or two or a Thai-ish named Bernard.

However, Ms Ip and Mr Tsang could both get jobs they love – and Mr Leung may be in on it. Consider this.

The Policy Address (PA) and Budget come quickly one on the other now and are coordinated. The preamble and conclusion of the Budget speech are more easily changed than the actual spending, especially if committed to in the Policy Address.

But it is impossible to imagine the CE doesn’t sign off on the Budget Speech, even if there is some back and forth of the drafts. Some tweaking could happen between the PA and Budget Speech, but they should largely be coordinated in advance.

If the CE signed off, then Beijing signed off. Presumably everyone is fairly competent and had some sense of how the CE’s speech and the FS’s speech would be compared, contrasted, and received.

M’lord Mayor

This brings us to another idea: A mayor for Hong Kong. The idea has been floated here and there, mostly by pro-dem types.The idea there would be a mayor who ran the show, formulated policy, worked with, and was elected by, the public. This would create space for a Party Secretary figure who had ultimate, but normally hands off, control (like your driving instructor). The PartySec would opine on One Belt One Road, build links with Chinese counterparts, and lead the National Flag day ceremonies. It would be akin to a Continental European President or slightly more influential Governor General.

Powers held by the PartySec could be a source of discussion and some (e.g. appointing university heads) could be chipped away at over time to reassure people that Hong Kong’s autonomy was not only being protected, but enhanced.

The Policy Address-Budget Speech pairing seems to be generating that distinction, almost as if the idea is to create a semi-reality, wait until people notice it, and start to talk it up. It’s not such a terrible idea if it creates space for a new deal between Hong Kong and China.

Try sometimes, you get what you need

China needs the illusion of control in all things and the reality of control in very few. This was the presumption of the Basic Law construction where China would handle military and international relations and Hong Kong would have autonomy on pretty much everything else.

The problem now is that the perception is that China is getting into everything, to the disadvantage of wide swathes of Hong Kong community. Currently, the illusion of total control by China is unacceptable to many.

Hong Kong people need, at the very least, the illusion of autonomy. The illusion will keep the peace for a while, if condemn Hong Kong to decline as institutions are undermined. And the people are of Hong Kong are not fools, not sheep, and not to be silenced. Ony real autonomy will give Hong Kong and her people space to be Hong Kong, to grow and be strong.

The creation of the two posts, with a PartySec for the CCP and a mayor for the people of Hong Kong would cleave the bipolar sources of authority our Chief Executive must answer to. These two partnered political speeches, the most important in our annual political calendar, seem to be driving things that way. Again, almost certainly approved by Beijing.

Given the original source of these ideas (the pro-dem camp), the powers that be may be looking for a way to engineer a pro-dem campaign as the aim of the next democratic reform, giving China a face-saving way to let go a little. If splitting the CE role into two is explicitly a government idea, it will be stillborn.

CY the martyr

CY Leung could be in on a plan where he is the sacrificial lamb to draw the ire of Hong Kong and appear to cede to public demand for a split as per above. It could be the centrepiece of his 2017 campaign. Aside from housing, what else could he run on?

He could promise a 2022 where a new election could see two persons ‘elected’. The PartySec role would see a higher degree of control of candidate selection by Beijing, and less obvious control over candidates for the ‘mayor’.

Regina Ip-type could be the Beijing favourite for PartySec, a J. Tsang (John or Jasper)-like figure could conceivably run as a more popular option for ‘mayor’. Time may be against these specific candidates, as it’s hard to imagine all three treading water until running in 2022, well over seventy years old.

In politics, the PartySec would be a constant object of derision and ire of a minority, playing a valuable role of drawing poison out of the electorate. The mayor figure, while not immune to controversy, could get on with important work that matters to people’s lives.

If the CE spends the next year focussed on cross-border issues, national ceremonies and OBOR while his officials get on with running the city – while the Election Nomination Committees are underway, it may give space for a new conversation about our government’s structure to begin. CY  may even run on a platform of adopting an idea that pan-dems could get behind, if they were convinced the separation of powers was real. The idea may be attractive enough to win over localists if they thought it would get Beijing out of significant aspects of running Hong Kong, leaving more power in local hands.

It may sound  a little far-fetched. But tweaking old ideas of how to elect the same all powerful CE means that Beijing will need to have control over that  position, calcifying the current stalemate.  That road leads nowhere. New ideas must rise. If they come from the pan-dems and are taken up by the establishment, it may be acceptable to get real, effective change.

If there are better, even radical ideas out there, we’re all ears.