A lot of people in Hong Kong think then-Security Secretary Regina Ip fled government in disgrace in 2003 after her attempt to introduce ‘Article 23’ national security laws horribly failed in the face of public opposition. This isn’t true; the widowed mother had already planned to resign in order to accompany her daughter when the latter went to school in the US.
Regina took the opportunity to return to studies herself at Stanford, where she penned an MA dissertation called Hong Kong: A Case Study in Democratic Development in Transitional Societies. You can probably get beyond the catalogue entries if you have access to the tightly guarded troves that keep prying eyes away from academic contributions to humanity’s body of knowledge; a summary crops up here. While the paper could be read as embracing democracy, it also accepted Beijing’s ‘gradual and orderly blah blah’ barriers to reform, leading one commentator to give it a D grade.
On return to the Big Lychee Regina dedicated herself to satisfying her lust for political standing. Accompanied by locally born Stanford science grads, she started the Savantas ‘think tank’, and later, with textiles scion Michael Tien, the New People’s Party. After losing a by-election against former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, she won a seat in the Legislative Council and later joined the Executive Council as a non-official.
In terms of policy, she has pushed outdated high-tech economic planning a la 1960s Japan, along with methodically chosen livelihood issues like opposition to a levy on foreign maids, designed to appeal to an aspirational but politically docile ‘middle class’. Such a constituency exists, but her party’s ranking in fourth place (among all the splintered pro-dem and other groups) in the 2008 Legco election suggests its limitations as a power base.
If she has core principles, they are those of the old-style and increasingly discredited British-trained bureaucrat-elitist. Her hands are meanwhile tied by her perhaps rash decision to join the Executive Council of Chief Executive CY Leung, who has been ambushed by detractors across the spectrum and simultaneously made himself unlikeable among most everyone else. Finding herself in this position, with an unquenchable thirst for power, and at age 63 having only the 2017 election as a chance to slake it, she is bound to be a bit panicky and confused. One minute, she needs to be the voice of at least a decent chunk of the people, the next minute she has to scrabble to reassure local conservative forces and/or Beijing that she shares their misgivings about representative government.
In her column in yesterday’s South China Morning Post she presents herself as an unabashed reactionary. She chooses a rather narrow range of ills to lament. She feels bitter about the decision to give handouts to poor inhabitants of illegal dwellings, a view shared by bureaucrats who see such people as law-breakers rather than victims of appalling government housing policies (next stop, indoor relief). She tut-tuts about populist sentiment against golf courses and (more seriously) elite schools that in practice keep the poor out. She frets over anti-rich and anti-Mainland feeling.
Most interesting is her analysis of why this is all happening. She allows that a housing problem and the wealth gap exist, but she stresses the bigger context so much it sounds like she is railing against the modern world itself. The voice of the people has grown louder; we have constitutionalism and lawsuits; officials have had to become (or appear) more responsive to popular needs; “Hong Kong people have lost their sense of decency, respect for hard work and professional standards”; even “the expansion of education contributed to the souring of the mood.” Bring back hanging, and ban votes for women while you’re at it.
Some people might think she simply is reactionary, but I doubt she is this illiberal at heart. She seems to be joining, in her own way, Beijing officials’ contrived panic about how Hong Kong is tearing itself to bits because of radicalism, disaffection, etc. (We can guess she wrote the piece a week or so before publication; the United Front seems to have told its loyal followers to turn the volume down in recent days.)
Her basic thesis, that Hong Kong is in trouble because weak government panders to vested interests, is beyond dispute. But only an ignoramus believes deep down that Beijing is not the basic problem. She is writing this stuff because she is afraid of what might happen if she expresses more sensible opinions, and what it would mean for her dream of riding to our rescue a few years down the road. People who would prefer someone else to do our rescuing in due course might want to cut out and keep this SCMP piece for future reference.