Bank of East Asia Chairman Dr the Hon Sir David Li Kwok-po, GBM, GBS, OBE, JP is to quit the Legislative Council. (And let’s not overlook Legion d’Honeur.) The longest-serving lawmaker announces his decision in a rather bitter-sounding interview with Sing Tao, and thus the Standard. He was probably going to stand down in the September elections anyway, but with the dawn of a new regime under Chief Executive-elect CY Leung, his departure is symbolic and possibly points to a bigger pattern.
Li has represented the Finance functional constituency in the legislature – a constituency with less than 150 corporate, or non-human, electors – since it was created in 1985. No-one has ever run against him, apart from a young whippersnapper in 2000, who lost by 89-32 votes. His main claim to fame was in having the legislature’s second-worst attendance record, though he made a point of dropping into the chamber for a few minutes on Wednesdays to be counted as present.
In the interview, he denounces politics as a waste of time and says he wishes he had never entered, complaining that “in the past what was said could actually be done [but now] there can be a change of plan at the last minute.” It is hard to resist interpreting this as a reference to Hong Kong’s favourite last-minute change of plan this year: the decision in late March by Beijing to have CY Leung rather than dim rich-kid and former Chief Secretary Henry Tang win the Chief Executive quasi-election.
When Henry officially declared himself a candidate last year, Li latched onto him as his ‘campaign manager’, just as he had with Donald Tsang in 2005 and 2007. It was a way to be identified as a firm supporter of Beijing’s chosen one and to bask in a bit of reflected glory – an ultimate example of intra-Hong Kong establishment shoe-shining. If anyone had any doubts that Henry was to be the next CE, Li’s endorsement sealed it. It was utterly unthinkable that David Li would back someone not bound to win in the charade. To Li – and for such pro-Donald ‘elite’ luminaries as Anthony Wu and Ron Arculli, and Sing Tao, and the civil servants who joined in the smearing of CY earlier this year – Beijing’s last-minute kowtow to public opinion and abandonment of Henry was a humiliating slap in the face, and indeed an overturning of their world.
Henry’s ‘campaign’ was a non-event that largely dispensed with glossy leaflets, hand-shaking and manifestos; what was the point, when the job was being handed to him on a plate? This sense of entitlement found among such movers and shakers comes through in Li’s moans about sometimes having to show up at the Legislative Council at 9am. He gets the seat unopposed, along with the relatively high position on page 6 of the Big Government List of Really, Really Important People, lots of medals, a special airport lounge and other perks, but God forbid you should actually sit on a bills committee or turn up to vote; that’s what ordinary folk do. (Similarly, ordinary folk resign from the Executive Council instantly when they get into an insider-trading case with the US Securities and Exchange Commission; Li departed the body only after Donald Tsang came under considerable public pressure, mainly about Hong Kong’s overseas reputation.)
In the interview, Li pretty much says he has selected his successor in the Legislative Council, giving the impression that he regards the Finance seat as his own property. This is half-true. It has been no secret in functional constituency (small) circles that he was intending to bequeath the seat to his own son – a plan that pissed off more than a few bankers, and which government officials feared would bring the ‘rotten borough’ system into greater disrepute than ever. It is the Bank of China group, which influences a generous number of votes in the tiny franchise, that has chosen Ng Leung-sing as the next lawmaker for the finance sector. The BoC is owned by the same government that ditched Henry at the final hour in late March.
Ng’s background is in a couple of Hong Kong’s less-known financial institutions, now merged into BoC, one catering for Fujianese, the other serving Indonesian-Chinese (the latter usually being the former). Li is of solid Cantonese stock, and UK-born. Ng was an appointed (and not inactive) legislator back in the 1990s, and, it goes without saying, a patriot, being a delegate to the National People’s Congress. Li, by contrast, can be outspoken and even led a group of bankers in suits on a march to protest the Beijing massacre in 1989.
The outcome: one more reliable and active pro-government legislator. This is a pattern that we may see repeated in one or two other functional constituencies easily manipulated by Beijing; perhaps the Sports and Culture FC, currently occupied by Timothy Fok, who has the legislature’s worst attendance record. The idea would be to make sure CY Leung has a more dependable and loyal support base within the legislative arm. Here is a South China Morning Post report from yesterday to put this in context…
Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying should strengthen the executive-led system of government after he takes office in July, a top adviser to Beijing says.
Zhu Yucheng , a former deputy director of Xinhua in Hong Kong, made the suggestion a day after pan-democrats succeeded in delaying a Legislative Council debate on a by-elections bill for the second week running.
“What we have to pay attention to now is the original meaning of ‘one country, two systems’,” Zhu said yesterday on the sidelines of the opening of Tsinghua University’s first Hong Kong and Macau affairs think tank. “The political system [of Hong Kong] is an executive-led system, not a separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary.
“Leung will have an advantage [in implementing this principle] as he did a large amount of research and investigation when the Basic Law was drafted.”
It is not the first time a Beijing official has said Hong Kong does not have separation of powers. It is ultimately true: the sovereign power can overrule our courts through ‘interpretation’ of the Basic Law, and it can veto Legislative Council votes through the essentially rigged nature of the Council’s composition. Indeed, it has to be so because no separate source of power can exist in a one-party state. But these comments suggest that CY Leung will be given the opportunity to wield greater executive clout than his predecessors. Along with a stronger loyalist bloc – expect dirty anti-democrats campaigns in the election in September – we may see revised parliamentary procedures to reduce legislators’ delaying tactics (like the current filibustering). The new administration would probably also like to curb the public’s use of judicial review as a means of pushing the government around, and it will no doubt also want to kick some bureaucrats into shape. That’s executive-led government.
If CY uses a slightly more Singaporean-style of control to push through popular and/or necessary measures, it would go down well. Vested interests, bureaucratic inertia, the constant need for compromise and consensus and plain lack of vision have left Hong Kong standing still in the last 15 years. But if he uses the extra clout to enforce unpopular decisions – with by-elections, filibustering and judicial reviews all off-limits as avenues of public resistance – it could mean trouble.