12 April 2012

Dangerous Liaisons - Special Election Double Issue 危險關係 - 特首選舉雙刊

Two Sundays ago on 25 March, C.Y. Leung was crowned the third chief executive of Hong Kong. An election committee of 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing members picked Leung over his rival and the initial favorite, Henry Tang. For the first time since the Handover, there was more than one viable (read: acceptable to the Communist Party) candidate running for the city’s highest office. To Beijing’s chagrin, however, the two establishment candidates showed little restraint over their smear campaigns. The mudslinging turned an otherwise rubber stamp election into a spectator sport and drew a bigger crowd than the Rugby Sevens (which, incidentally, was held on the same weekend and was largely ignored). In an unprecedented about-face, Beijing dumped Tang in the eleventh hour and threw her support behind Leung. White smoke finally came out of the chimney and a new leader was born.

He got what he wanted

I resisted the temptation to write about the election  or selection  for as long as I could and it wasn’t for a lack of material. On the contrary, the news cycle was spinning so fast that anything I wrote would have been rendered instantly obsolete. Not long after we were told about Henry Tang’s torrid love affairs, a dozen yellow cranes descended on his residence to get a glimpse of an illegal subterranean palace. In the mean time, underdog C.Y. Leung was going from door to door begging for nominations to enter the race, all the while fending off allegations of nepotism in the West Kowloon redevelopment project. In a bizarre turn of events, a local mafia boss made a cameo appearance in one of Leung’s campaign dinners and sparked a public uproar. Then out of nowhere, pictures of outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang wining and dining on a private yacht were plastered all over the news, while new developments of the Bo Xi-Lai (薄熙來) scandal in the Mainland continued to trickle in. Who says local politics has to be boring?

The circus has come to town

As over-the-top and random as these events appeared, none of them happened by accident. There are few coincidences in politics and our "small circle" election is no exception. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time we conducted a post mortem to connect the dots and to make sense out of these seemingly unrelated and bizarre episodes. Only then we can separate the truth from the lies and figure out our friends from our foes.

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Who is C.Y. Leung?

We begin with C.Y. Leung. Son of a policeman and a real estate surveyor by trade, Leung is a self-made millionaire with a good poker face. His poise and eloquence are matched only by his ambition. A classic Machiavellian, he can be relentless, manipulative and ruthless if he has to be. After all, the press didn’t call him a wolf for nothing. And he has done remarkably well for himself: by age 30, Leung was chairman of a prominent property management firm; by age 41, he was president of the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors. In 1984, Beijing named him Secretary General of the Basic Law Consultative Committee (BLCC) advising on the drafting of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. But it was during his time serving as a policy adviser to Tung Chee-Hwa, the city’s first chief executive, that Leung set his eyes on Upper Albert Road. Since then, every step he took and every person he befriended would get him closer to his goal.

A boy wonder in Beijing's eye

Far more troubling than his ambition was the popular notion that C.Y. Leung is a closet communist. I don’t just mean a person with leftist political leanings, but an actual member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Several prominent figures, including senior democrat Martin Lee and a former underground communist Florence Leung (梁慕嫻), have argued with conviction that only a CCP member could win Beijing’s trust to head the BLCC. The day after Leung was elected chief executive two weeks ago, CCP’s official news site Renminwang (人民网) issued a congratulatory message and referred to him as Comrade Leung, an appellation reserved only for party members. A reporter friend told me that Chinese news agencies always mean what they say, and in this case they might have said a little too much. 

So what’s the big deal if Leung is a party member? The best way to understand the CCP is to compare it to the mafia. A mafia member swears allegiance to the Boss and will do whatever he is told to do, even if it goes against his own beliefs and judgment. Once indoctrinated into the organization, he relinquishes all decision-making and knows only to execute orders from above. If our next chief executive turns out to be a communist, we will have to brace ourselves for a lot more than just "riot police and tear gas" (measures that Leung once proposed to use against demonstrators, according to Henry Tang). If our suspicion is correct, then we might as well toss the “one country, two systems” promise out the window.

Leung's party membership is an open secret

Leung’s Problem

Now that we have a better idea of the sort of man C.Y. Leung is, let’s return to the race.

Leung had a big problem: Beijing was dead set on making Henry Tang the next chief executive and she did not change her mind easily. Tang was a safe choice: abiding, steady and business-friendly. By contract, Leung was generally considered to be untested and unpredictable. His track record as Tung Chee-Hwa’s policy advisor was spotty at best and downright frightening at worst, culminating in the so-called “85,000” housing policy in 1997 that contributed to a 70% drop in property prices over the following half decade. For all his ambition and Communist backing, Leung was politically radioactive. He and his reformist ideas scared everyone in Hong Kong, especially the property tycoons who remembered his failed policies too well. That explains why Leung was having such a hard time getting enough nominations to run. It also explains why Beijing authorized Donald Tsang’s government to leak the West Kowloon reports to the press in an effort to stall Leung’s campaign and bolster Tang’s chance of winning. To turn the tides, Leung needed a bigger plan.

Leung's housing policy is still fresh on everyone's mind

Dangerous Liaisons

And so he turned to the Liaison Office (中聯辦), the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong and the go-between for the city’s government and the CCP. It is unclear who approached whom first, but the result would have been the same. Ever the snake oil salesman, C.Y. Leung made a pitch to his fellow party members at the Liaison Office about the mutual benefits of putting a "comrade" in power. He reminded them that Hong Kong had already been led by a businessman (Tung Chee-Hwa) and a bureaucrat (Donald Tsang) and it’s high time one of their own take the lead. Leung’s words struck a chord with the Liaison Officers, who had long been meaning to expand its presence and power in Hong Kong. After all, playing the role of a messenger pigeon between Hong Kong and Beijing could get a little dull. And so a deal was struck and the plan to destroy Henry Tang went ahead with frightening speed.

The "Death Star" on Connaught Road West

Within weeks, Henry Tang’s dirty laundry – his marital infidelity and illegal structures – was shown on every newspaper front page and magazine cover. Only the Liaison Office would have the resources to launch an attack with such precision and efficiency. Tang, with his bumbling public persona partly to be blamed, saw both his reputation and campaign decimated in front of his very eyes. And when C.Y. Leung wanted support from the indigenous constituents in rural New Territories, the Liaison Office answered the call once again. Well-connected in the underworld, the Office summoned a prominent mafia boss nicknamed Shanghai Kid (上海仔) to sit side by side the villagers at the dinner table and scare them into voting for Leung. All was going as planned, and the normally stoic Leung began to crack a smile.

Beijing Interrupted

The systematic effort by the Leung camp to destroy Beijing’s handpicked candidate was bold and extremely risky. It was tantamount to a coup d’etat against the CCP, punishable by ten thousand deaths. Luckily for C.Y. Leung, senior members of the CCP had their hands full dealing with the Wang Li-Jun Incident (王立軍事件), one of the biggest political struggles in China since the Cultural Revolution. The incident implicated Chongqing’s party secretary Bo Xi-Lai, a rising star from the Princelings Faction (太子黨) widely expected to ascend to the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (政治局常委). Bo’s fall brought to light the intense factional struggles that have plagued the CCP for years and threatened to derail the transition of power when Xi Ji-Ping (習近平) takes the helm later this year. Given all that was going on in Chongqing and the mounting public pressure in Hong Kong for the beleaguered Henry Tang to quit the race, Beijing finally caved in and made a last minute decision to ditch Tang. Some have argued that Tang had been quietly supported by the Shanghai Faction and that his demise was a direct consequence of the factional fallout. Whatever the real story was, the 180-degree wind shift confused and embarrassed the election committee in Hong Kong, which suddenly had to march to a different tune and look like a bunch of flip-flopping goons. It also sent property tycoons and political foes such as Sing Tao’s chairman Charles Ho (何柱國), ever arrogant, loud-mouthed and publicly critical of Leung, into a tizzy. Leung’s smile had just widened to a grin.

Bo, poster boy of China's factional struggles

Collateral Damage

But how did Donald Tsang get dragged into the mess only months before his cushy retirement? The answer lies in the old adage that the friend of an enemy is also an enemy. Henry Tang was Tsang’s right-hand man: he was his finance secretary and chief of staff. Back when Tang was still Beijing’s choice candidate, Tsang was happy to give his pal's campaign a booster (hence those West Kowloon reports). Luckily for C.Y. Leung again, the West Kowloon allegations were much too complicated for the public to understand and they never gained traction with the press. But the scandal did achieve one thing: it set off an alarm within the Leung camp that Tsang had to be stopped before further damage was done. The Liaison Office sprang into action again and unleashed the dogs on the chief executive, just as they did with Tang. This time it was even easier, for it didn’t take very much to hire a private investigator to follow Tsang on one of his frequent private boat rides or to find out about a 6,000-square-foot penthouse in Shenzhen, compliments of a Mainland media tycoon. Within a few days, the chief executive was forced to make a public apology and faced investigations by the ICAC, Hong Kong’s version of the FBI. A broken man, Tsang took the hint and backed off from meddling with the race. He was no good to Tang anyway now that his reputation was shattered. In the end, the outgoing chief executive found himself on a long list of political road kills on Leung’s path to the throne. He should have run when he heard someone cry wolf.

More, more, give me more!

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With great skills and greater luck, C.Y. Leung got what he wanted. He has overcome incredible odds going from an also-run to the ultimate victor. Anyone who is able to accomplish all that in a few short weeks deserves an applause and ought to be taken very seriously. The slim picking of lone supporters who have stuck with Leung right from the start, including such longtime political pariahs as Fanny Law (羅范椒芬) and Barry Cheung (張震遠), have backed the right horse. Their foresight will be rewarded, perhaps with a senior position in the new government.

All eyes are now on C.Y. Leung to see what kind of ruler he will be. Will he tone down his reformist rhetoric and dial back his social re-engineering? Will he leave our civil liberties intact despite his technocratic views and Communist background? Will he ignore Beijing's wishes and delay the passing of Article 23, the controversial anti-subversion law? It is all too early to tell. For now one thing is certain: the dangerous alliance he forged with the Liaison Office will stay, and together they will use a combination of carrots and sticks to wield power over the city. It was therefore no accident that Leung decided to pay a visit to the Liaison Office on his first day as chief executive elect. There are, after all, few coincidences in politics.

Dangerous Liaisons indeed