27 October 2012

One Hundred Days of Solitude 百日孤寂

Tung Chee-Hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, had a tough term in office. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. When he took the job in 1997, the ex-shipping tycoon was full of lofty ideas. He tried to rein in property prices by building more public housing. He created Cyberport and proposed a West Kowloon revamp to make Hong Kong the region’s high-tech and cultural hub. One after another, however, his policies fell flat on their faces. Then came the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the collapse of the property market in the same year. His political downfall was so spectacular that paramount leader Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) made a point to dress him down in public. In 2005, Tung stepped down, citing an arthritic leg. Career bureaucrat Donald Tsang took over and began an administration based on a time-tested motto: do nothing, do no harm.

The Three Stooges: Tung, Leung and Tsang (from left to right)

Seven years after Tung Chee-Hwa fell from grace, C.Y. Leung finds himself in eerily familiar territories. The only difference between the two beleaguered chief executives is that one of them has only been in office for a hundred days. Leung, a self-professed retail politician who ran on a popular platform to tackle the city’s growing income gap and runaway property prices, is coming undone. Nothing seems to be going his way. First, his cabinet reshuffle was derailed by filibusters at the Legco. Then, one of his ministers was caught cheating government housing allowances and had to resign just twelve days after he took office. Next came the national education debacle, which had snowballed from a loosely organized student protest into the biggest political crisis since the anti-subversion bill controversy in 2003. All of his other policies, including the northeast New Territories development plan, the old-age allowance scheme and even something as mundane as building a man-made beach in Tai Po, have been met with massive resistance. Leung seems to possess the “Sidam Touch,” the ability to ruin everything he comes into contact with.

Vehement opposition to every government policy

The performance of a political leader is often measured by his accomplishments during the first hundred days in office, when he has the most political capital at his disposal. Judging from C.Y. Leung’s first hundred days, his administration is shaping up to be as disastrous as Tung Chee Hwa’s, if not more. Conscious of his own failures, Leung attempted to reboot his term with a campaign called “Hundred Days Reform”  (百日维新), borrowing the name from the famous national movement in China during the late Qing dynasty. But when he realized how unlucky it is to name a campaign after an event in history that ended in failure and almost got the organizers beheaded, he decided not to tempt fate and drop it altogether. Though if Leung really wants to be superstitious about things, he should blame his miserable first hundred days on an inauspicious start. His reversal of fortune began shortly after he won the election, when a half-dozen illegal structures were discovered at his residence on the Peak. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if Leung hadn’t attacked his opponent Henry Tang so mercilessly during the election debate for committing the very same crime. The city was so outraged by his hypocrisy that critics called for his impeachment even before he was sworn in. Very bad luck.

"Folks, I have no idea how the storeroom got here!"

Politics superstitions aside, the illegal structure saga underscores C.Y. Leung’s biggest problem: credibility. All the lies and half-truths he told to cover up his building violations play into the perception that the man nicknamed “werewolf” is a compulsive liar and a ruthless opportunist. Indeed, trust has always been his Achilles’ heel. Throughout his political career, Leung has been dogged by rumors that he is a closet communist. During the chief executive election, his close ties with the Liaison Office (中聯辦), the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong, made him look like a sell-out and raised suspicions that the two are in cahoots to “Sinofy” the city. So far, Leung has done little to bridge the trust gap. On the contrary, his credibility problem has been spreading like a cancer. It has infected his government and poisoned every policy initiative it puts forward.

The answer is "no."

Meanwhile, Beijing is keeping a close eye on C.Y. Leung’s every move. After all, the Politburo took a chance on him when he was still an underdog running against establishment candidate Henry Tang. When Tang’s election campaign began to implode in the weeks leading up to the voting day, Beijing took the Liaison Office's advice and backed Leung. With the 2017 deadline for universal suffrage in the city looming, the Politburo needed a strong man to finish what his predecessors have failed to do. They needed a leader with enough popular support to push through an ambitious political agenda in Hong Kong. Dubbed the “Four Great Tasks” (四大任務), the agenda includes: (1) passing the anti-subversion bill (also known as “Article 23”), (2) reorganizing RTHK (a government-funded radio station), (3) implementing the national education curriculum and (4) writing the rules for a Beijing-friendly version of universal suffrage. Task No.1 failed in 2003 after half a million angry citizens took to the streets demanding Article 23 be scrapped. Tasks No.2 got done during Donald Tsang’s term, after the government went through a sham recruitment exercise and replaced RTHK’s head with one of their own. That means by the time Tsang left office this July, three of the four Great Tasks remained outstanding. That’s where Leung is supposed to come in, as the Great Helmsman who will step up to the plate and check things off the list. At least that’s the way the Liaison Office sold the candidate to Beijing during the chief executive election. Three months into his term, however, Leung turns out to a big disappointment. With national education now dead in the water and his personal credibility out the window, there is little chance that anything will get done in the foreseeable future. Tough pills like Article 23 and election reform appear out of the question.

RTHK's unpopular new boss

As if that wasn’t bad enough, C. Y. Leung made a catastrophic mistake two months ago that would reverberate far beyond the confines of our city. In August, a Hong Kong fishing boat carrying a half-dozen activists set out to the East China Sea. They dodged the Japan Coast Guard and landed on the disputed Diaoyu Islands. The incident set off a new wave of territorial disputes between China and Japan, and threatened to set Sino-Japanese relations back four decades. It is the last thing that Beijing needs when they are still cleaning up the Bo Xilai (薄熙来) snafu to make way for the all-important leadership change in November. It being a Hong Kong fishing boat, however, all fingers are pointing at Leung. It appears that the chief executive received conflicting signals from Beijing and followed the wrong marching order. He should never have allowed the fishing boat to leave Hong Kong waters and let home-grown activism get out of hand. Therein lie the perils of taking orders from up north, especially in the lead-up to the 18th National Congress (十八大) when there is so much confusion and factional in-fighting: you just don't know whom and what to believe.

The boat that rocks China and Japan

As far as Beijing is concerned, C.Y. Leung is as good as dead. What little faith the Politburo had in him during the election has completely evaporated. Leung is now widely expected to suffer the same fate as Tung Chee-Hwa and step down as early as next year. Luckily for him, Beijing is unlikely to make any drastic decision until the upcoming National Congress is concluded and the change of leadership has fallen into place. It will be at least another few months from now. But that's little comfort to those who work for him or side with him, for Leung is now radioactive with a 20-mile dead zone. His cabinet members and advisors have started to distance themselves from him, as are pro-government parties like the DAB (民建聯) and the Federation of Trade Union (工聯會). For a man who admits to not having many friends, Leung is feeling even lonelier these days.

It's lonely at the top

C.Y. Leung's fall is more than a prediction – it is a forgone conclusion. Sometime in 2013, he will develop a sudden case of arthritis and pass the throne to one of his deputies, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) or Finance Secretary John Tsang (曾俊華). It is unclear whether these career bureaucrats will be any better at carrying out the remaining Great Tasks at Beijing’s behest. What is certain, however, is that Leung’s downfall will deal a death blow to the Liaison Office. They have backed the wrong horse and, worst of all, given Beijing bad advice. There is a longstanding power struggle between the Liaison Office and the Beijing-based Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (港澳辦) or HKMAO, not least because both agencies are tasked with overlapping responsibilities to oversee affairs in Hong Kong. Once Leung is out of the picture, the Liaison Office will be significantly weakened and relegated to the sidelines. But that doesn’t mean Beijing will finally leave us alone and let us run our own city; it just means that we will be hearing a lot more from the HKMAO from now on.

We'll be seeing a lot less of the guy on the left,
and a lot more of the guy on the right


This article also appears on SCMP.com under Jason Y. Ng's column "As I See It."

As posted on SCMP.com


  1. Very detailed. Sigh. What a shame.


  2. Dear Jason,

    I bought your book earlier this year, but it wasn't until last week I had the time to finish it in one go. And then I discovered your blog, what a pleasant surprise.

    Be very assured that you are an excellent writer. I particularly like your essays on the politics of HK - this one included. You have the sacred gift of talent of being able to pick up the finer details and present it to the reader in a way that he can never have seen it in his own eyes.

    Thank you Jason.


  3. Thanks, Brian, for your support. Do check back often and keep reading!



  4. Sometime in 2013, he will develop a sudden case of arthritis, or a hemangioma


  5. Haha...my eyes blurred and i thought it was 100 years of solitude for a second :)


  6. BTW, Leung moved into the Government House (禮賓府) two days ago, even though renovation is still in progress. Perhaps he read my article and realized that his time is running out.


  7. Very insightful.


  8. Public punching bag to Chief Stooge, The Chief Executive position is such an uneviable hot seat I wonder why power brokers even bother.


  9. Love your new article, and the title in particular. Such an irony, or pun ? (whatever, I am no linguist) to the esteemed author who penned the real thing. One rose to fame as the Nobel laureate and the other to be pulled down in face of imminent arthritis.

    Your “time-tested motto” is so true in a way, and this is what most politicians try to do anyway, at least to protect their fat package. Guess his ambition without careful (let alone considerate) aforethought doesn’t help. I don’t agree that “his administration is shaping up to be as disastrous as Tung Chee Hwa’s”, it’s worse, though admittedly I cannot recall a lot of Tung’s initial policy(ies). That speaks for itself already, right? If they have done anything right / proper people would have remembered it. Why place a man at the top with no policy or all blatantly wrong policies? Granted, Leung has been a puppet in my view all along, nothing more and nothing less. Seems all our politicians have a penchant for bad fengshui, but it is no bad luck. That’s the last he can blame it on. It was all his own doing with the Liaison Office. If anything, blame himself, not luck.

    I couldn’t stop laughing at the caption “[f]olks, I have no idea how the storeroom got here!”. Can you imagine any sane adult making that statement unless he has not lived there for over 20 years? Credibility, rumours, well, he IS a Communist. It is no mere rumours. He’s certainly lost on the popular support count. And I am hoping against hope that the 4 pillars will never get erected. What good will they do to us in Hong Kong? Unless you can convince me they are not one-sided or pro-Beijing measures, and even with your writing skills, Jason, you won’t be able to convince me of that (no offence) unless their whole mentality change. I hope it’ll materialize as you predict, that nothing will get done in the foreseeable future, and all the better if nothing will get done on these scores forever (if it is in the direction they are currently taking).

    [To be cont'd]


  10. Pardon me, I am no expert in international law (indeed in any area of law) but is there anything Leung could have done practically to stop the Hong Kong fishing boat venturing off to Diaoyu Islands? Whether that is right or wrong at least their courage is to be commended, in fighting for what they believe to be right and rightfully ours.

    I really like your description, that Leung is radioactive with a 20-mile dead zone. But I doubt whether Carrie Lam or John Tsang will be any better once they are in the same position unless he / she is strong enough to think for us in Hong Kong and not just bow to Beijing. As for your closing remarks, is that what we want, a tug-of-war between the Liaison Office and the HKMAO? When will we, or will we ever, get to see a bit of sense and sensibility in our government?

    I just hope Leung is not using our tax money to don up the Government House or build anymore underground dungeons there anymore, and I totally agree with Docomo, why do the power brokers even bother fighting for that top job? Is it really (as my friends and I were discussing the other day) that power and authority matters more to these people than money and security and peace???


  11. "the Liaison Office (中聯辦), the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong"

    Rather than a "de facto" consulate, it seems more befitting to call it the de facto government of Hong Kong. Since Day One, the SAR government was no more than just a pawn on the chessboard.

    "...They needed a leader with enough popular support to push through an ambitious political agenda in Hong Kong. Dubbed the “Four Great Tasks”..."

    If this is true, then it is indeed unfortunate that Beijing was unable to see this strategy is impossible going forward. I suspect that such a "leader with enough popular support" could only emerge if there is someone who able to do the following:
    a) affordable social housing for almost 80% of the HK population;
    b) wage war on local tycoons who hold various monopolies and oligopolies in the various sectors of the HK economy;
    c) stem the tide of mainlanders coming to HK for various reasons
    d) revamping the education system such that it enables HK youths to find meaningful careers. This could well mean bringing back English as a medium of instruction to start with.
    e) the diversification of the HK economy from financial services and real estate by brining in high-value adding activities such as IT development, R&D activities etc to give HK youth more opportunities and hope in their future.

    If a HK politician could achieve the following (not an exhaustive list thought), then he/she might well be popular enough without a popular mandate through universal suffrage to then push for the "Four Great Tasks". However, the list i have laid out is almost impossible for anyone in HK to achieve because it will mean stepping the toes of everyone with power and influence in HK as well as the toes of Beijing. The reason is simple: the list i have provided summarized the aspirations of the ordinary HK folks which are mostly at odds with the powerful tycoons in HK and Beijing policy objective in chipping away HK's autonomy.

    For some time, i observed with deep concerns that the political and socio-economic situation in HK post 1997 is growing more and more untenable. In fact, the tragic "228 Incident" which occurred in Taiwan more than six decades ago might well be the end game for Hong Kong as tensions continued to boil without any pressure valves to release it. HK and Taiwan in 1947 are definitely not identical prallels but they are similar enough to be of concern.