SCMP Friday, April 20, 2001

Search conscience, Anson, and run!


With much fanfare, Anson Chan Fang On-sang will next week leave her job as Chief Secretary for Administration, the number-two position in the SAR Government. To some, she represents the Government's "conscience". To others, she is simply another loyal official.
It would be a sad thing indeed if there was only one conscience in a Government composed of more than 190,000 officials. Now that its conscience is about to exit the scene, what will happen to the SAR Government? What will happen to the people of Hong Kong, ruled by a Government without a conscience? The prospect looks frightening.
But do we need a conscience in our Government? To most non-partisan people in Hong Kong, the answer would be no. An organisation only needs a conscience as a corrective mechanism when it is dysfunctional. To regard Mrs Chan as the conscience of the SAR Government would be an insult not only to all civil servants (who this view seems to assume are not doing their jobs) but also to everyone else in Hong Kong (who are not doing anything about their otherwise-conscience-lacking Government). If things have become so bad here, why don't her fans stand up and be counted instead of idly mourning her departure?
Just ahead of the July 1997 change in sovereignty, we were repeatedly told that our civil service was a finely tuned machine, among the best in the world. With such a top-class bureaucracy at our service, there should have been no need for a conscience at all - and Mrs Chan, as Chief Secretary at the time, was therefore not the colonial Government's conscience. We can only deduce that she became the conscience after the handover.
To put it simply, the colonial Government did not need a conscience. But overnight, the SAR Government needed to acquire one. This could only happen if the governmental machinery that had been working so smoothly suddenly collapsed or was corrupted by uncontrollable forces. Surely, some colonial logic is needed to figure that one out.
The late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping said only two things would change after the handover: the Chief Executive and the flag. These two changes are supposed to have brought about Mrs Chan's transformation into the SAR Government's conscience. Is she against the Chief Executive or the flag, or both?
I, for one, do not think Mrs Chan is against the Chief Executive or the flag. Deep in her heart, she might not think she is the Government's conscience or even that the Government needs one. But praise is nice to receive, and there is little incentive to disclaim it. A vote of thanks upon retirement is also nice to receive, and having legislators decide not to vote on a valedictory motion is likely to have hurt. This is only natural.
But if Mrs Chan does think of herself as the Government's conscience and chose that role out of certain convictions and devotion to Hong Kong, she might choose to run for Chief Executive next year. This is the only way she can save Hong Kong from being ruled by a Government without conscience.
Saving Hong Kong is a big job, one fit for the Iron Lady. And although playing with grandchildren might be fulfilling, it cannot be as satisfying as governing Hong Kong. A fear of losing the election - the most common reason cited for Mrs Chan not standing - is no deterrent. Can the "conscience of Hong Kong" lose heart so easily?
During the first Chief Executive election in 1996, the democratic camp boycotted the process and called it undemocratic. Instead, they staged a mock election, pitting veteran democrat Szeto Wah against Tung Chee-hwa. Mr Szeto "won" by a wide margin, generating a lot of publicity about the undemocratic nature of the process by which the Chief Executive was actually chosen.
Similar events will probably be organised around next year's election. But if Mrs Chan were to join the race, things would be more exciting and the election would gain an air of authenticity.
Contrary to what most people have been led to believe, Mrs Chan would be a credible candidate if she stood against her former boss. The way things look now, Mr Tung badly needs a convincing electoral rival in order to avoid re-election by default.
Mrs Chan could easily find 100 Election Committee members willing to nominate her. The democrats claim this part of the process would be no problem and that potential nominators would not mind having their names disclosed publicly, as required by the recently enacted rules governing the Chief Executive election. The ballot itself is secret, and the "conscience of Hong Kong" would undoubtedly attract some votes. Certainly, some among the 800 members of the Election Committee do not want to vote for Mr Tung. The question is: how many votes could Mrs Chan expect?
It would, of course, be nice to win the election. With the United States economy apparently heading for a hard landing and the Hong Kong economy moving along sluggishly at a growth rate of three to four per cent (which could at any time be affected by the global situation), the incumbent would have a hard time boosting his popularity among the public and his support among the Election Committee. If Mr Tung makes a few blunders over the next few months - which judging from his past record, seems likely - Mrs Chan would pick up votes.
In fact, she does not even have to win. Mrs Chan always tops Mr Tung by a wide margin in opinion polls. If such a highly popular figure - not to mention the conscience of the Government and the community as a whole - was defeated in the "small-circle" electoral process, this would prove the undemocratic and unfair nature of the current system of choosing the Chief Executive.
If Mrs Chan were defeated by a small margin of about 50 votes, she would carry the day. She would walk away as a martyr, with the democrats raising her to the status of Joan of Arc. She would gain much favourable publicity in the international media. Her position as the conscience of Hong Kong would be firmly established here and abroad.
Vanity is not what drives a person of Mrs Chan's calibre, but running for Chief Executive would certainly help solidify her as the conscience of Hong Kong. Unmasking the electoral system would exert tremendous pressure, here and in Beijing, on democratising Hong Kong's political system further after the 2004 review stipulated in the Basic Law. And Mrs Chan, an internationally recognised former head of the civil service, could do a much better job of exerting such pressure than the parochial schoolmaster-turned-legislator, Mr Szeto.
It is my sincere wish to see Mrs Chan regroup and lead the democrats. Things are going nowhere as they are. Hong Kong needs strong democrats, and I am sure the Iron Lady could whip them into shape.
Lau Nai-keung is a political commentator and delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.