Relay team: President Hu Jintao sings with outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang. and CY Leung (R) during a 2012 variety show in Hong Kong ahead of the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover to Chinese sovereignty. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip
Relay team: President Hu Jintao sings with outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang. and CY Leung (R) during a 2012 variety show in Hong Kong ahead of the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover to Chinese sovereignty. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

To be named Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China is a poisoned chalice. Since the British handed the colony back in 1997 there have been three incumbents. For each, the promise of a gilded full-stop that would bookend their glittering careers has ended in exclamation marks of scandal and public castigation.

First, Tung Che-hwa, a shipping magnate with fetching loo-brush haircut and an avuncular billionaire-man-of-the-people look that Beijing should probably trademark, got off to a bad start running smack-bang into the Asian financial crisis. While it’s hard to pin the blame for this calamity on him, it set the tone for seven years of political controversy and hapless bungling.

Tung Chee-hwa chats to a weeping 72-year-old man about poverty and loneliness during a visit to a “cage home,” a kind of slum where poor people rent a bed, usually hemmed in by metal bars. Photo: Reuters.

Tung quit midway through his second term after at least half a million out of the city’s 7 million population marched in a peaceful protest against proposed anti-subversion legislation. Opposition centred on the government’s plan to introduce Article 23 — a commitment to anti-subversion laws as agreed, albeit in vague and deniable terms, in the handover agreement between the city’s former and current political masters — which would undercut the fundamental freedom of expression that many felt underpinned Hong Kong’s economic success.

Tung’s withdrawal from the political arena was dressed up as a noble retreat due to ill health — not, fortunately, linked to the outbreak of the deadly “bird flu” virus afflicting the city around the same time.

Enter Hong Kong’s version of “The Donald” – Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the bowtie-wearing career civil servant.

In just seven years, Tsang had managed to transform himself from Lifelong Lackey (Knighted by Her Majesty, no less) of the Colonial Oppressors into a trusted insider in the world’s least trusting insiders’ club: the Communist Party of China.

He saw out the end of what should have been Tung’s second term without too much trouble, was approved for another five-year stint in 2007 and seemed to be coasting his way to retirement. Uh oh. Then the product of the squeaky-clean (post the 1970s corruption scandals, to be sure) British establishment was mired in a corruption scandal that has yet to be resolved in the as-yet uncorruptable Hong Kong courts.

It’s time to talk about Democratic Centralism.

Whenever you find yourself at a dinner party or rowdy bar discussing the inevitability of China’s rise, or wishing some trumped-up municipal official in your home town would find herself in a frozen gulag, Democratic Centralism should bring you to your senses.

For older Europeans, and irritable expat teenagers, this is a concept that is hard to distinguish from old-fashioned patriarchalism: “Do what I tell you, not what I do;” “There is a difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in;” “This is for your own good, sunshine. Grin and bear it.”

From the very first time he met Margaret Thatcher, the British premier whose job it was to surrender the people of Hong Kong to the inevitable logic of China’s dictatorship, Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping made it clear that whatever model of government Hong Kongers ended up with, it would not be the West’s idea of democracy.

More of a continuum of what Whitehall regarded as democracy best fitted to Hong Kong’s entrepot status… blended with Deng’s own brand of pragmatic survivalism (of the Party).

On June 30, the last governor of Hong Kong boarded the Royal Yacht Britannia in the drizzling rain and sailed east out of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. The tinkle of glasses and the melancholy laughter from the guests on the rear deck could just be heard over the piano (it should have been a Noel Coward number) as the yacht — dwarfed by the tower blocks overhanging the harbor — escorted the Last Governor away from Chinese territory. I know. I was sheltering from the rain under a Quarry Bay flyover with a colleague from the South China Morning Post. Quite a historic cigarette break.

No sooner was the Governor gone than China’s newest region had a Chief Executive, chosen by a select group of the great, the good and the acceptable to Beijing. To be fair, democracies come in all shapes and sizes: the old governor sits in Britain’s House of Lords as an unelected lawmaker; there’s no need to dig over the (to the losers) inequities of the US Electoral College in deciding who will rule the “Free World.”

So China’s leaders are determined to handpick the ruler of Hong Kong. Exactly who gets to choose is anyone’s guess. Does the Central Committee of the Party decide? (A few hundred people from more than a billion.) Is it a wider group? Or the seven-strong Politburo Standing Committee? Or Just Emperor Xi Jinping himself?

No matter. Having taken a punt and lost on their “Red Capitalist” shipping tycoon and his always-suspect technocrat Tsang, who would be next in Asia’s very own Game of Thrones?

Meet “The Wolf,” Leung Chun-ying — better known as CY.

CY was probably never first choice. That privilege went to Henry Tang Ying-yen — the wine-loving scion of an industrialist who, perhaps apocryphally, was said to while away tedious hours in the legislature by reading catalogues for wine auctions wrapped in draft legislation.

It was this type of behavior that earned Tang a reputation as having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. As one of the world’s most unforgiving capitalist economies, Hong Kong has proved something of a canary in the coal mine for globalization: Tsang and his Number 2, Tang, presided over one of the most rapidly diverging wealth gaps, a stagnation of middle class incomes and the collapse of opportunity that has become a motif in election after election across the world.

From one unelected club to another? A pro-democracy demonstrator holds a portrait of Queen Elizabeth as he marches along downtown Hong Kong July 1, 2012, on the 15th anniversary of the territory’s handover to China. New Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying was sworn into office by Chinese President Hu for a five-year term. Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

Having been caught out with an illegally constructed wine cellar (how appropriate), Tang’s campaign imploded. CY stepped into the gap, winning Hong Kong’s top job with a mandate of 689 votes, a not-so magic number that been used by opponents to deride him ever since. And, boy, have there have been a lot of opponents hounding him since his first day in office in 2012.

CY’s intial efforts were to shift policy away from the colonial-era mantra of “small government, big markets” and towards a model that would be more compasssionate and redistributive. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s politics have become so calcified in partisan bile that it’s hard to see any room for compromise, accommodation and progress.

Along the way, CY’s wife and family have also become targets for political vengeance and he has decided — understandably — that enough is enough. Though of course, to what extent the cabal in Beijing pushed him will only be recorded in the Zhongnanhai archives.

So, what is it about China’s version of democracy for Hong Kong that keeps throwing up leaders who keep throwing in the towel or throwing away their reputation?

Being caught between Beijing hardliners and a public desperately trying to hang on to the vestiges of the “one country, two systems” principle of the Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China in 1984, certainly gives new meaning to a rock and a hard place.

Astonishingly, there are still takers. Although only retired judge Woo Kwok-hing has thrown his hat into the ring so far, CY Leung’s decision on Friday is sure to open the door for the likes of Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and the re-invented Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who drew the short straw as Tung’s head saleswoman for the Article 23 law and who now heads her own political party.

Where’s the towel rack?

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