SCMP Saturday, January 13, 2001

Hard act to follow

Whatever the truth about their strained relationship, it hardly matters now. Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang is going, and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is losing his greatest asset on the international stage. To most of the outside world, Mrs Chan epitomises Hong Kong. Picture perfect, flawlessly groomed and never at a loss for the right phrase, she has been the epitome of grace under pressure during some of the most turbulent episodes in the transition from British colony to SAR.
In those hyper-sensitive early days, it was Mrs Chan who could restore calm and a sense of proportion whenever something shook confidence in the "one country, two systems" pledge. Her support of colleagues and pride in the reputation of the civil service have kept things steady through some very troubled waters. She has been a valiant champion of a free press when it has been under attack, a staunch defender of the rule of law, and of unparalleled service to her city for nearly four decades. Her overseas role as an ambassador for the SAR cannot be overstated.
Yesterday's press conference was a rare occasion where Mrs Chan failed to convince the public to see things her way. If, as she says, she decided to call it a day last July, it seems slightly strange that she did not tell her boss until six days ago. Perhaps she simply decided it was not worth struggling against the unnamed agitators who have tried to drive a wedge between her and Mr Tung by spreading tales of disharmony. Perhaps those stories led her to weigh the options and decide an early departure would remove a public relations irritant which has become an annoying distraction to the work of the Government.
Mr Tung has 18 months before his term ends, and he now gains the opportunity to work with a Chief Secretary of his choice rather than one inherited from his predecessor. That should prevent any rumours of policy conflict. The Chief Executive said he already had somebody in mind for that job, subject to the approval of Beijing, and it is hard to see anyone with better qualifications than Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Mr Tsang also enjoys the confidence of the public. He has earned great respect in the global business community by his handling of the financial crisis, and - his two immediate senior colleagues apart - no one else in the administration has a higher international profile.
His appointment would guarantee stability within the civil service after Mrs Chan's departure. He shares many of her views, and recognises the need to introduce a political system where senior government officers assume greater responsibility and accountability. A Chief Secretary with such a high profile in the financial world would be an apt choice for a city so firmly rooted in finance and commerce.
But however logical Mr Tsang's appointment may appear, the choice is Mr Tung's. He could look outside the administration for a second-in-command, in which case there could be implications for civil service morale. It will be vital to choose someone who can earn the confidence of civil servants during an unsettling period of change.
Then comes the equally crucial question of who might be qualified to succeed Mr Tsang if he does become the Chief Secretary. That is certainly one area where someone from the private sector might have the best background for the job. It is, arguably, the most important post in government, given Hong Kong's business profile, and it calls for wide experience on the international scene as well as economic expertise. It might even be possible to coax back one of the top civil servants Hong Kong has lost to the private sector in recent years.
But however fresh, dynamic and harmonised Mr Tung's new team may prove, the fact remains that it will be hard for anyone to rival the achievements of Mrs Chan. She was the first woman to join the administrative service, the first female department head and the first woman to fill her current job.
Called upon to serve two masters of wholly different personalities and styles during the most challenging time in Hong Kong's history, her career has not been all plain sailing. Yet she also had the humility to point out in her speech yesterday that it is Mr Tung who has the most difficult job.
And if there were stormy times in their relationship, Mrs Chan's contributions also have made his lot easier - both domestically and in the wider world. The "dimpled diplomat", as she has been called, is a tough lady despite her Dresden china appearance. Only someone with inner reserves of courage and integrity could have handled the role so well.
Mrs Chan does not shrink from stating her views when she feels the occasion demands it, even if they might stray a bit from the official line. But it has always been intended for Hong Kong's benefit.
She is a tough act to follow.