Monday, July 10, 2006

The Return of the Iron Ladies

After three years of self-imposed exile in the United States, one of Hong Kong’s most controversial political figures has returned to the territory as a born-again democrat. Politics in the former British colony may never be the same.

Three years ago Regina Ip was one of the most reviled figures throughout the territory. She had made herself a political lightening rod as the leading proponent of a National Security Bill that many in the territory worried would curb their freedoms in an autonomous region of China.

More than half a million people turned out to protest against the anti-sedition law on July 1, sixth anniversary of the handover to China. Former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa withdrew the bill. Ip resigned as Secretary of Security and left the territory.

She spent those years in California earning a Masters Degree in political science at the Center for East Asian Studies at the prestigious Stanford University. Her thesis? What else: Hong Kong governance and democracy.

The woman who had once disparaged democracy by saying, “Hitler was elected through universal suffrage, and he killed seven (sic) million Jews” now tells the world that “the only way forward [for Hong Kong] is “complete democratization.”

But Regina Ip isn’t the only “Iron Lady” roiling the political waters. In the days preceding the July 1 holiday – which is meant to celebrate the glorious liberation of Hong Kong from colonial rule – former chief secretary Anson Chan was all over the airwaves urging people to hit the streets.

As a consequence, the turnout, at an estimated 58,000 pro-democracy demonstrators, was more than double that of the preceding year. Chan took a prominent place in the march, flanked by family members and a ring of supporters who joined hands to form a protective ring around her.

Chan was the first Chinese and the first woman appointed to the post of Chief Secretary, the highest position in the civil service, just below the governor, or since 1997, the chief executive.

She was appointed by the last British governor Chris Patten, hated by Beijing, and partly for that reason is profoundly distrusted by Chinese authorities. But she is popular with Hong Kong people. In the days preceding the handover, she was, by far, the most popular choice to become Hong Kong’s first Chinese governor.

Since she resigned the government in 2001, Chan had maintained a fairly low profile. She did not take part in the epic march in July, 2003 or the equally well attended July 1 march in 2004. But she emerged as a critic of the administration late last year, when the legislature rejected a modest series of constitutional reforms because they did not go far enough toward “universal suffrage”, a term that in Hong Kong means choosing the chief executive and all of the Legislative Council by popular vote. Currently, the Chief is chosen by an 800-member electoral college; half the Legco through narrow-interest “functional” constituencies.”

Political watchers in Hong Kong have been transfixed in recent weeks the sudden emergence of not one but two new political figures. The two Iron Ladies have reinvigorated the democratic movement in Hong Kong, which has been languishing rudderless for months. On everyone’s lips: What are they up to?

Much speculation surrounds the question whether Anson Chan might challenge Chief Executive Donald Tsang, when he finishes the term of his predecessor in 2007. This seems like a quixotic quest, since the 800-member Selection Committee that chooses the chief is dominated by pro-Beijing appointees.

It is not by any means certain that Chan could best Tsang in a straight election. Unlike the hapless Tung, Donald Tsang is popular in his own right. His failure to enact some modest democratic reforms late last year did nothing to dampen that popularity. People think his heart is in the right place.

Anson is keeping her cards pretty close to her chest. She shrugs off the inevitable questions by saying that she wants to “see one step, take one step.” depending on how things develop. However, it is said that she has been making overtures to Emily Lau, leader of the Frontier Party, a liberal group.

“Anson’s maneuvers have created controversy, divisions and tensions even within the democratic camp,” says long-time Hong Kong political observer Tom Polin. “Many don’t know what to make of her intentions and are not a little jealous, or worried, about her ability to steal their thunder as leaders of the movement.”

For her part, Regina Ip has been back in the territory for only about two weeks, and so her plans are even less clear, even though she is putting out strong signals that she wants to get involved in the political process. She has indicated she might form a new political party.

Ip seems to have had an epiphany of sorts in her three years of study at Stanford, under the tutelage of Professor Larry Diamond, a well-known American political scientist. Sections of her thesis: “Hong Kong. A Case Study in Democratic Development and Transitional Society” has been excerpted in Hong Kong newspapers.

Much of the thesis concerns some fairly arcane points of governance, advocating major structural changes, especially in the dysfunctional relationship between the executive and the legislature. But she says clearly “there is no reason why direct elections to the fifth term of the legislature not be held in 2012.”

Two years ago the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress had ruled out any chance of full democracy either for chief executive or the legislature during the 2007-2008 elections cycles. The next logical moment to introduce democracy would be in 2012.

The two former top civil servants, were not on very close terms when they were in the government and, “the currents of rivalry between them are already palpable,” said Polin.

Ip did not participate in the July 1 pro-democracy march. It may be that she didn’t want to be overshadowed by Anson Chan. Or it may simply be that she had only returned to Hong Kong the two days previously.

Either candidate could, if she chose to run, make a realistic challenge to Donald Tsang. Anson has the popularity, but Ip might make more interesting race - a moderate and perhaps more Beijing-acceptable candidate who might garner the most support from surprising quarters.