Handsome Chan


Deep in the background, towards the centre of photographs of Britain’s 1 July 1997 ceremonial handover of Hong Kong to China, you can just make out the diminutive figures of Anson Chan Fang On-sang and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. The soignée Mrs Chan can be recognised by her coiffure; Sir Donald Tsang (as he was then, although he renounced his knighthood on becoming a Chinese citizen after the handover) can be recognised by his trademark bow tie.

At that moment, in the cavernous space of the new Hong Kong Convention Centre rushed to completion for the imperial display marking Hong Kong’s repatriation to the motherland, the elegant Chan and the dapper Tsang were the highest ranking, career civil servants of the last Governor, the robust Chris Patten (known affectionately as Fat Pang, the only governor to be given a Chinese nickname).

Chan was then Chief Secretary, head of the civil service. She helped set up the Association of Female Senior Government Officers to fight for better rights for women civil servants; and was the first woman and the first Chinese to hold the second-highest government position in Hong Kong. From the end of colonial rule, she stayed on as head of the civil service, continuing to serve the Hong Kong SAR Government under its first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, but was told by Beijing to be more supportive of the conservative, unpopular and hapless Tung.

In 1999, she agreed to delay her retirement until June 2002. However, she announced her resignation in January 2001 and stepped down officially in April of the same year, citing personal reasons.

Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen

Tsang was Secretary for Finance at the time of the 1997 handover and had been responsible for the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration that presaged it. He served under several British Governors and was made a Knight of the British Empire by the future King of Australia, Prince Charles, just before the handover. Many said Tsang had been too close to Britain for Beijing to accept him. But despite his colonial associations and the fact he is a devout Catholic, he rose from Financial Secretary to Chief Secretary, in 2001, replacing Anson Chan.

Following Tung Chee Hwa’s resignation in March 2005, Tsang served as Acting Chief Executive until May 2005, and was then elected unopposed by the 800 members of the Election Committee in June 2005 for the remainder of Tung’s second five-year term as Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. He will be a candidate for the position again in the March 2007 election.

Chan said, before her resignation in 2001, that she would be ready to quit if asked to accept policies that clashed with her principles. In contrast to her more conservative boss Tung, Chan had been more forthcoming about supporting democracy, and called for a faster pace of democratisation. In what the Hong Kong media saw as a dressing down for Chan, People’s Republic of China Vice Premier, Qian Qichen, told her to support the unpopular Tung during a visit to Beijing in September 2001. Qian’s call came after months of criticism of Chan by pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong.

Since her resignation, the popular Chan in her role as Hong Kong’s Iron Fairy Godmother has maintained a strategic presence in Hong Kong’s public life, championing the introduction of universal suffrage in a canny way. While many bend pragmatically with the wind from Beijing, Chan took part in the 4 December 2005 protest against Donald Tsang’s limited constitutional reform package which was defeated when it failed to gain the required two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council (see One Country: Which System?) And on 20 December last year, she used the media to call on Donald Tsang to ask for greater democracy from Beijing.

In the lead-up to last Saturday’s 1 July pro-democracy march (which has become a fixture since the march on 1 July 2003 saw in excess of 500,000 rally against proposed anti-subversion laws), Anson Chan has been busy in the media. Having announced her intention to march a week before the event, she made a series of well-publicised talks on civil society on the public broadcaster, RTHK. She also joined a press conference given by the Democratic Party to publicise the march.

Chan’s recent comments have reminded the Chief Executive that he cannot afford to ignore democratic reform. Following the defeat of his reform proposals last December, Tsang has sidelined the issue. Although he heads the Commission on Strategic Development looking at the principles involved in a democratic system, progress is glacial. Beijing has ruled that no changes will be made before next year’s election for the Chief Executive, but some reforms should be in place for the elections after that, in 2012.

The question is, what reforms will Tsang advocate?

Anson Chan with Tung Chee-Hwa

Chan’s recent radio and press appearances have coincided with a visit to Hong Kong by Jia Qinglin, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC) and the fourth most senior member of the Beijing Politburo. The ursine Jia has been urging Hongkongers to set aside political differences and focus their energies on economic developments.

Anson Chan has drawn attention to the comments of two senior mainland Basic Law (Hong Kong’s Constitution) scholars who recently set out six reasons why Hong Kong was not ready for universal suffrage. One reason the venerable sages advanced was that democracy must be conducive to the development of capitalism. This interesting view, that might otherwise be dismissed as the scribbling of pandas, or neo-liberalism with Chinese characteristics, is however a mantra of Hong Kong’s tycoons. More than comfortable in their control of local markets, the tycoons often query the value of universal suffrage and fear it might limit their influence and lead to changes to Hong Kong’s Dickensian social welfare and industrial relations laws.

The affable Jia, after an obligatory 15-minute visit to an 800 square foot family apartment, had a breakfast meeting in more spacious and salubrious surroundings with a select group of local tycoons: Henry Fok Ying-tung and Tung Chee Hwa who are also vice-chairmen of the CPPCC Li Ka-shing, and his son Victor Li Tzar-kuoi. Younger son and Chairman of PCCW (the Hong Kong telco), Richard Li Tzar-kai, was absent.

Fifty thousand people attended last Saturday’s march in favour of universal suffrage — more than double the 20,000 who participated in 2005. At a time when Beijing is doing well in local opinion polls, the local economy is on the up and up, and local lawyers, travel agents and more Hong Kong manufactured goods can enter the mainland market, Anson Chan’s intervention helped focus public attention on the issue that the establishment wants to go away.

Chan is non-committal on whether she will run in next year’s ‘small circle’ election. Only the 800 members of a largely nominated Election Committee have a vote for Chief Executive. Her chances of winning are said to be slim; the Election Committee’s placemen are solicitous of Beijing’s views. The cool and collected Chan is said to be unlikely to run in an election she cannot win; however, she refuses to divulge her intentions as the gloves come off in a campaign to contain her.

‘See one step, take one step’ she says serenely when questioned on the subject.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.