SCMP Saturday, May 12, 2001

At the peak of their gender

Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Nellie Fong Wong Kut-man and Rosanna Wong Yick-ming are probably the most powerful women in Hong Kong. They are perceived as having very different characters, but these differences boil down to political packaging.
Of the four, Mrs Chan, who has just retired as chief secretary for administration, is by far the most successful. This is ironic, because quite a few people are convinced she has actually done little for the people of Hong Kong. Cynics have even suggested that all the major projects overseen by her turned out to be disasters. Nevertheless, she remains immensely popular and is a favourite with the international media.
Her excellent public-relations skills are largely responsible for keeping her well ahead of the pack. Mrs Chan rarely granted interviews to the media, preferring instead to reach out to the public through speeches and comments at public functions. These were normally carefully controlled events. From the way she dressed to her choice of diction, Mrs Chan's every move was meticulously stage-managed. She was always well prepared and her mastery of the English language was an added advantage. She could hit the bull's-eye every time she spoke in public. But Mrs Chan made a mistake immediately after completing her 38-year civil-service career: at a time when many people in the SAR are still struggling to pull themselves up from the disaster of the regional financial crisis, she boasted that most of her monthly salary went on clothes. If true, she was spending more than $100,000 a month on her wardrobe. Her remark was insensitive and did not tally with the caring image which she tried so hard to foster. Mrs Chan is a classic case of inflated reputation.
Mrs Ip, the Secretary for Security, is nearly the opposite of her former boss. She is unpopular and impulsive. It is an open secret that even the former chief secretary was unable to keep her in line.
Although Mrs Ip studied literature at university, she is not particularly adept with words. Among other literary works, she has drawn analogies to George Orwell's novel Animal Farm (widely construed at the time as comparing the Hong Kong media with the autocratic pig Napoleon for having urged the Government not to prosecute student demonstrators, although Mrs Ip denied this is what she had meant) and the kung fu novel Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (comparing the writings of Li Hongzhi, the founder of Falun Gong, with ancient superstitions). On both occasions, Mrs Ip triggered a public outcry.
She tends to act before she thinks. Recently, she made a fuss by mixing the concepts of "political stance" and "political neutrality". Mrs Ip contested the alleged political neutrality of the civil service - a favourite theme of Mrs Chan - by arguing that top officials have always taken political stances, before and after the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. In fact, Hong Kong's high officials, like permanent secretaries in other countries, never take political stances of their own, they simply toe the official line.
A few people have written in support of Mrs Ip, including National People's Congress local deputy Ng Hong-man. But that is about the extent of her fan club. Unless she undergoes a complete personality change, Mrs Ip is unlikely ever to reach the pinnacle of the civil service: Mrs Chan's former position of chief secretary. She should be grateful to remain where she is.
Moving on, how Mrs Fong has managed to reach the political heights of a seat on the Executive Council, the Chief Executive's 13-member inner cabinet, is one of Hong Kong's greatest mysteries. As an appointed member of the Legislative Council under British colonial rule, she did not stand out in any policy area. Nevertheless, she bagged a major role in the drafting of the Basic Law, the SAR's mini-constitution, and somehow managed to remain in the picture after Tung Chee-hwa became the Chief Executive.
Mrs Fong infuriates the public almost every time she speaks publicly, which she did again last week. On RTHK's Letter to Hong Kong programme, she denounced the people of the SAR for distancing themselves from the mainland. She has also branded them lazy, irresponsible and too dependent on government assistance. Mrs Fong is blind to the fact that many honest, hard-working people are struggling to make ends meet. The only plausible explanation is that the target audience for her harsh comments was Mr Tung and his supporters, rather than the public.
Apart from Mrs Fong, Ms Wong is the only other woman among the nine members of Exco not drawn from the civil service. She has come under attack mainly because she has done too much. She chaired the Housing Authority for years but was forced to step down because of a spate of construction scandals. Her comments at a recent Legco hearing, in which she said the supply of land for public housing had been unsteady from the early 1990s until the 1997 handover, have been mistakenly interpreted by the media and the public as an attempt to shift blame to the last governor, Chris Patten. Despite the damage the scandal has done to her reputation, Ms Wong has been appointed by Mr Tung to another responsible position - the head of the Education Commission. She will find it difficult to balance the conflicting interests in the education sector. The public seems forgiving enough to accept her being in charge of another major commission. However, her brave decision and personal commitment to take over where Antony Leung Kam-chung left off, when he relinquished the Education Commission job to move into his new position as Financial Secretary, is political suicide and likely to end in another failure.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( )is a broadcaster and publisher.