Friday, June 17, 2005

Just a Typical Hong Kong Boy

He’s a remnant of British colonialism with a knighthood to boot. Yet Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s new chief executive, somehow earned the trust of both Beijing and the people of Hong Kong. How he managed to pull this off is one of the more fascinating stories of post-handover Hong Kong.

Tsang clinched the top job this week after he received 710 nominating votes from the 800-member selection committee, packed with pro-Beijing business leaders, that chooses Hong Kong’s chief. Since a minimum of 100 nominating votes is required to advance to the election, Tsang essentially was unopposed and declared the winner.

At the time of the handover in 1997, Anson Chan, then the number-two officer in the administration was unquestionably the most popular official in Hong Kong. If Hong Kong’s first Chinese chief executive had been decided by a popular vote, she would have won hands down.

In fact, a small circle of mostly pro-Beijing business figures decided the issue in favor of shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa. He kept Anson Chan in office since any immediate change would have undermined both local and international confidence in the new Hong Kong administration.

Patten picked Anson to be the first Chinese chief secretary shortly after he became governor in 1992 and embarked on program of expanding the number of directly elected seats in the Legislative Council. It was an action that earned Beijing’s deep animosity, since it had assumed that the matter was settled. Anson was pegged as Patten’s chief lieutenant, or, as Beijing saw it, his chief running dog.

Anson seemed to revel in Patten’s favor. Donald Tsang, whom Patten named to the key post of financial secretary in 1995, was more circumspect. Even when accepting British honors and accolades, he always seemed to be slightly embarrassed about it. Anson, when made an honorary dame (similar to a knight) professed to be “overjoyed.”

Chris Yeung, political editor of the South China Morning Post wrote this after Anson retired in 2001 and was succeeded by Tsang: “Despite bearing the same political baggage of Mrs. Chan, inherited from their close links with Chris Patten, Mr. Tsang has been more successful in diluting this pro-British image since the handover.”

Several times while she was chief secretary and later after she retired, Anson spoke out publicly against certain actions by Beijing or its sympathizers in Hong Kong. One such occasion was in 1999 when some pro-Beijing figures attacked the government radio station RTHK for being too critical of the central government. Tung remained silent.

Such actions won her plaudits in the West as “the conscience of Hong Kong,” a title first bestowed on her in an admiring cover story in Newsweek shortly before the handover. Thereafter she would be constantly described in the foreign press as Hong Kong’s conscience, which must have grated on the leaders in Beijing.

By contrast, Tsang kept his differences behind closed doors while cultivating the public image of being a “typical Hong Kong boy,” born and educated in Hong Kong, who worked his way to the top of the civil service on sheer merit and competence. It had the added advantage of being largely true.

Tsang cemented his rise when in August 1998, in the depth of the Asian Financial Crisis, he abruptly sacrificed free-market principles to spend billions of public money to defend the Hong Kong dollar from currency speculators. In a matter of weeks he would spend the equivalent of nearly (US) $25 billion buying shares on the Hong Kong stock market.

The action turned out to be a smashing success as it scared off the speculators, saved the dollar and later earned the public a handsome profit when the government sold off the shares. It is a sign of Tung’s political ineptitude that he didn’t seize credit for what was one of the few successes of his administration.

Tsang comes into office, then, with considerable advantages. He has much more public support that Tung ever had. (The latest polls give him 78% approval rating.) He is demonstrably more decisive and competent than his predecessor, and he probably has better relations with the democratic camp in the legislature as well as with the international community.

In the seven years since the handover, Hong Kong has suffered from a major dysfunction. As Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had Beijing’s trust and confidence but not that of Hong Kong’s people. Anson Chan was trusted by the people but thoroughly distrusted by Beijing. Tsang by all accounts seems to be trusted by both. That should auger well for Hong Kong.

Todd Crowell wrote Farewell, My Colony, Last Years of British Hong Kong. This post appeared in Asia Times Online

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