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Speaking up for Beijing in Hong Kong
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Hardly a day goes by without some diplomat or visiting politician offering comment on this city's social, political and economic development. No one bats an eye.
Freedom of speech. Tolerance. Open-mindedness. That's what Hong Kong is all about.
Why, then, when Beijing's top official for Hong Kong affairs chooses to pipe up do so many erstwhile defenders of free expression turn apoplectic and, once the ugly fit has subsided, direct him, in no uncertain terms, to shut his mouth and mind his own business?
After all, China has been sovereign power in Hong Kong for 14 years now. Shouldn't it have some small say in how things are going here? And isn't Wang Guangya, as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council - China's cabinet - the right person to say it?
It is a paradox of the handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 that - publicly, anyway - the new sovereign has had the least to say about the city's progress during this crucial period. There has been much behind-the-scenes dialogue between officials in Hong Kong and Beijing. Until Wang took over in 2010, however, his office, located in Beijing, was noted primarily for its enduring silence.
In his 13 years on the job, Wang's predecessor, Liao Hui, never offered a single public opinion. Liao may as well have worn a gag during his tenure. No one could complain that he had overreached his authority and breached late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's sacred mantra of "one country, two systems," which is supposed to guide Hong Kong's relations with the motherland.
Except in national defense and foreign affairs, Hong Kong, according to its constitution, is to remain an autonomous special administrative region of China for at least 50 years after the handover. Liao honored that commitment to autonomy in the extreme, refraining from all but the blandest public remarks and steering well wide of anything that could provoke a row. He was the classic bureaucrat.
By contrast, Wang, formerly China's permanent representative to the United Nations, has made a habit of speaking his mind and courting controversy. Shortly after assuming office, he stirred the pot with some terse, metaphorical advice to those who throw barbs at the central government from the safety of Hong Kong, where freedom of speech is a legal right: "Well water should not pollute river water."
"Interference!" cried Hong Kong's pan-democratic camp, members of which have been poisoning the well of Beijing's authority since Britain's Prince Charles stood stiffly on a Hong Kong stage and watched as the Union Jack was lowered for the final time to the strains, also soberingly final, of God Save the Queen.
"Meddling!" screamed supporters of the pan-democrats in the media, also purveyors of poison in the eyes of the Chinese leadership.
But the new man, who paid a three-day visit to the city in June, would not be cowed. Last month, he again broke with his taciturn predecessor and publicly opined - this time about three key qualities that he thinks Hong Kong's next leader, to be chosen in 2012, should bring to the job.
Meeting in Beijing with representatives of Hong Kong's Federation of Trade Unions, Wang stipulated that the next chief executive must have demonstrated love for China and Hong Kong, competence in governance and wide support among the people of the city.
The stated criteria may seem simple and reasonable enough, but Wang's critics still barked about him putting his nose (and words) too directly into Hong Kong's business. Moreover, the third quality mentioned by Wang - popular support - had never before been broached by a Chinese official and thus set off a spate of word parsing and speculation among analysts about which of the three putative candidates Beijing might favor for the job.
While no one has yet formally declared his or her candidacy, it is widely accepted that Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, Executive Councilor Leung Chun-ying and former Legislative Council (Legco) president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai are the top contenders for the position. Tang and Leung clearly have the administrative experience Beijing wants in a chief executive, but surveys show that Fan is more popular. So, harmless as Wang's remarks may appear, they created a media stir and sparked a new round of feverish guessing about who is likely to get the nod from Beijing.
It didn't help that Wang's words to the unionists were not very precise. "The future chief executive should enjoy a relatively high degree of acceptance among the general public, who should feel that the person being elected is not bad," he told them.
Who knows exactly what that means? Nonetheless, Hong Kong media have spent a lot of fruitless time and effort trying to figure it out.
Wang's most recent outburst - a far more precise and robust criticism of the city's proud, 160,000-strong civil service as a toadying holdover of British rule - has stirred the most controversy yet.
Meeting this time in Beijing with a visiting group of Hong Kong university students, Wang complained that civil servants, because of their training under the British, "still don't know how to be a boss and how to be a master," adding: "Now they have to become the boss."
Again, although anyone familiar with Hong Kong's often dysfunctional politics and timorous policymaking knows that Wang has a valid point, the response to his statements was predictably heated.
Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang - who was trained by the colonial British administration - called Wang's remarks a "gross interference in Hong Kong's autonomy".
The chairman of the Senior Government Officers' Association, So Ping-chi, blamed the city's halting post-colonial progress on politicians and lack of public support.
"[Wang's] remarks should not be addressed only to civil servants but also to Legco and the public," So said. "He obviously wants them to support long-term planning for Hong Kong and for society to be more tolerant."
Finally, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who also cut his bureaucratic teeth under the British, weighed in with his support of his lower-level brethren, saying on his Facebook page: "The team of the SAR [Special Administrative Region] government, be it political appointees or civil servants, has long been working for Hong Kong's long-term interests. We set out policies together."
As Wang and much of the Hong Kong public see it, however, those policies aren't working very well because the officials implementing them lack the vision and political skill to see them through. Indeed, considering that Hong Kong's civil service - again, thanks to the British, who once held all the plumb positions in it - is among the most handsomely remunerated in the world, the results are downright disappointing.
Consider further that Tsang, who earns US$516,000 a year, is the second-highest paid politician in the world - behind Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (US$2.47 million), and ahead of US President Barack Obama (US$400,000) - and one has to wonder about the value Hong Kong is getting for its money.
What bothers local bureaucrats and politicians the most about Wang is not so much that he is a meddling outsider from the north but, rather, that sometimes he is right.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1