In dictatorships, leaders can have pasts that involve money-laundering, murder or cannibalism – indeed, they may be requirements for the job. In democracies, however, political parties and governments should ideally vet individuals who aspire to high office. If a candidate has had an affair, formerly used recreational drugs, is addicted to gambling or was once photographed falling down drunk, his minders will need to know. Past indiscretions don’t necessarily bar someone from rising to the top, but if they pop up unexpectedly they can blow a career to smithereens, as recent Republican presidential hopeful du jour Herman Cain seems to be finding out.
Here in Hong Kong, with our curious democratic-except-for-elections system, political leaders get their positions handed to them on a plate, yet we are nonetheless free to torment them by exposing whatever grotesqueness we can dredge up in their backgrounds. And while all the signs are that Beijing has been grooming Henry Tang as Chief Executive material for many years, it looks as if the cadres never bothered to check his past for potentially embarrassing murkiness. I say ‘looks as if’ because the Communist Party maintains extensive files on tens of millions of people, and Chinese officials almost certainly keep meticulously recorded dirt on many friends as well as foes here in the Big Lychee. The revelations about Henry’s extramarital activities and rumours of illegitimate offspring could, of course, come from elements within the Chinese power structure favouring his opponent CY Leung – if we like conspiracy theories. Alternatively, we could go for the more mundane explanation, namely that over the years the powers that be failed to take seriously enough the possibility that nice Henry had a roguish history, let alone that Hong Kong had a roguish press.
Screwing around and even siring bastards does not need to be a political death sentence. Spin it properly and public opinion could even feel sorry for an honourable man whose charm and wit drove sexually aggressive women with no sense of decency or respect for marriage to force themselves upon him. In Hong Kong, where people crave credentials (and honourary doctorates), the ultimate transgression among right-thinking people is cheating on your academic record. In 2001, Richard Li, another tycoon-scion, had to withdraw claims of a Stanford degree (though his website still has an earlier, glowing article mentioning it).
A year later, Oriental Daily and Next magazine revealed that Henry had apparently done the same. In a 1992 register of Legislative Council members, his biography showed him as having a Masters in sociology from Yale. The truth was that he attended grad school at Yale, and no more. It caused a brief flurry of interest at the time, and then that was it – dead and buried. And now, for some reason, it’s back from the grave.
Could this be a moment of ironic triumph for Henry: becoming the first person in the world to be humiliated for not having a sociology degree?