The Changing of the Guard in Hong Kong

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posted January 24, 2001

Next week the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, C.H. Tung, will appoint a new Chief Secretary for Administration following the recent resignation of Mrs. Anson Chan Fang on-sang. The perception that disgruntled Marxist meddlers in Beijing may be behind the unexpected exit of “the conscience of Hong Kong,” as she has been called, is raising anew the specter of the direct control of the former colony by the PRC’s politburo. I met with Anson Chan the day before she resigned and the tone of that meeting may be a gauge of what her resignation might mean.

In Hong Kong at the invitation of the Government, I was paying a courtesy call on Mrs. Chan – a regular visitor to The Fraser Institute. Our 30 minute call stretched into more than an hour . We discussed a number of issues which have a bearing on how one might read the significance of her resignation. One was the resignation of the Business Editor of the South China Morning Post who had been writing critical articles about developments in China. While this might be seen as Beijing bossiness, it was apparently Hong Kong based advertisers who brought the pressure to sack the editor.

In fact, the common element in the issues we discussed is that while there have been unacceptable developments, the source was not pressure from Beijing. On this point Mrs. Chan was unusually forceful and direct. In the case of the South China Post, it was Hong Kong people “self-editing” rather than Beijing imposing its views. While the effect is the same – dissenting points of view are carefully circumscribed – this is more like business as usual in Hong Kong rather than some post transition development.

And, of course, the key question in interpreting Mrs. Chan’s resignation is to know the source of pressure producing the decisions. She herself has said that Hong Kong trouble-makers have been circulating false reports to Mr. Tung about her loyalty to the Chief Executive. However, there have been instances where Mrs. Chan has publicly taken a stance with which Mr. Tung disagreed. The case of Margaret Ng, for example.

Ms Ng, an outspoken member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, was stopped at the airport on her way to Beijing. Mr. Tung was away at an APEC minister’s meeting and Mrs. Chan expressed regrets that Ms. Ng was stopped. Upon his return Mr. Tung did not confirm Chan’s opinion but offered his own to the effect that every sovereign country has the right to determine who can come in – including China. Of course, the real point is the right of a Hong Kong resident to travel and speak out and that was denied to Ms. Ng.

It is possible that it was this sort of difference of opinion that reportedly led the authorities in Beijing to criticize Mrs. Chan for not supporting the Chief Executive. And, this criticism may lie at the root of Mrs. Chan’s resignation.

When I noted to her that she had been a very important ingredient in maintaining confidence during the transition and asked her about whether she would be staying on, she replied that “the transition has gone very well,” but, in her usual self-effacing manner, deflected any credit by noting, “nobody is indispensable” She followed this up quickly with the comment that, “I made a commitment to the Chief Executive to stay in place until 2002.”

Of course, at the time of our conversation she knew that the next day, she would resign. And, when I reflect on our conversation the opinion which she most strongly expressed – in connection with other Hong Kong developments - was, “This is not the result of meddling from Beijing.” Whether Mrs. Chan was trying to tell me that her resignation had to do with local meddlers and not the Northern type we will never know. The only public comment she made was to call on the people of Hong Kong themselves to become the conscience of the region.

Since Mr. Tung has said that he will not appoint an outsider to the post, the most likely choices to replace Chan are Donald Tsang, the current Financial Secretary and M.Y. Suen, the Secretary for Constitutional Affairs. Mr. Suen works closely with Mr. Tung. But Tsang is more widely known and is the most respected of the senior Secretaries. Odds are that Mr. Suen will get the nod since he’s more likely to know and be supportive of the Chief Executive’s views. But his appointment alone would not confirm concerns Mr. Tung is growing intolerant of dissent and more reflecting a Beijing-centric view of the world since Mr. Suen also has more seniority.

The dangling anxiety is the fact that whichever successor is chosen, we won’t know the real role played by Beijing. My optimistic speculation, based on my conversation with Mrs. Chan is that, as has long been known in the democracies of the West, “all politics are local,” even in Hong Kong.

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