Although it’s not quite as sensitive a subject as whether former President Jiang Zemin is alive, dead or in between, the chatter in Hong Kong about who will be the city’s next Chief Executive seems to be unsettling to the national leadership. The traditional Communist-feudal attitude is that the people’s role is to shut up and do as they are told (‘focus on the economy’) and not ‘mess about with politics’, as one Beijing official once warned. But China’s curious habit of putting incompetent people in charge of Hong Kong and – so far as anyone can tell – tasking them with serving property tycoons above all else has created an uppity, questioning and disgruntled populace who arrogantly assume that they have a stake in the way the place is run.
To Beijing, the worst-case scenario is that the Hong Kong people come to some sort of collective verdict on whom they would most like (or dislike) as next Chief Executive before the Politburo itself feels ready to make and announce its final decision. So now we have Hong Kong and Macau Affairs boss Wang Guangya reassuring pro-Communist labour unionists visiting the nation’s capital that the central government will make jolly sure that it picks someone we will all like.
The order in which Wang lists Beijing’s requirements for the job-holder are unsurprising. First, he or she must “love the country and Hong Kong.” This is code for the de facto religious test: you worship at the altar of the Communist Party and its one-party state, or you are excluded from any role in public affairs. Only after satisfying that comes the second qualification: “high levels of ability to govern Hong Kong as a highly developed city and let the economy thrive.” A statement of the astoundingly obvious, perhaps, but it does not bode well for, say, Rita Fan, who has never governed anything much and openly admits economic ignorance.
Third comes what a political commentator in the South China Morning Post excitedly advises us is all but unprecedented: the chosen one must be “rather highly accepted in Hong Kong society.” And, we presume, Wang does not mean the gruesome, grinning, jewel-clad clutchers of champagne glasses who appear in the pages of the Tatler. (Thanks to an alert citizen, by the way, we now have interesting evidence that front-runner for next Chief Executive, Chief Secretary Henry Tang, has been honing his ‘man of the people’ image by distancing himself from the elite pastime that is racing-horse ownership: he officially now has none of the creatures. Who would have thought the Jockey Club’s website would be so enlightening?)
It would be nice to think that Wang’s suggestion that the ruler of Hong Kong should have the consent and approval of the ruled is an implicit admission that Beijing goofed up in choosing the city’s last and current leaders. But there is little chance of that. He is essentially asking everyone to calm down, stop all this troublesome speculation and trust our betters to select someone we won’t detest – not for a good year or two, at least.
Inevitably, it is the first criterion that is the most important, and which so effectively limits the pool of what is usually referred to as ‘talent’ from which Beijing must make its choice. Despite badgering the British and the international community so desperately all those years ago about reuniting Hong Kong with the motherland, it is clear that China’s leaders, having successfully acquired the city, do not trust it.
You do not have to be a full, devout believer in the Communist church in order to qualify as ‘loving the nation’. It is a bit like the Test Act in late 17th Century England. In theory, public office holders had to belong to the Anglican Church; in practice they simply had to turn up for one service a year. The idea was not to enforce one narrow belief, but to exclude one, namely that of the Catholics, who were a danger to the state. So it is with the United Front in Hong Kong. Henry Tang, even without his racehorses, has no ideological commitment to the dictatorship of the proletariat, socialism or Marx-Lenin-Mao Zedong Thought. (He would have some affinity with the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing focus today on its own founding families’ hereditary privileges, but that’s another story – or maybe it is in fact the whole, depressing story if you think about it.) The primary requirement, to ‘love the motherland’, keeps the untrustworthy, potentially subversive and seditious followers of the alien democratic creed out of the power structure.
Too bad that leaves only a small bunch of idiots.