Regina Ip, one of the two declared aspiring candidates (at the time of writing) for the role of Chief Executive of the HKSAR in succession to C Y Leung, comes with a history. History is a double-edged sword for public servants.
Personal history can bear witness to experience, expertise and accomplishments. It potentially offers an established public profile for those seeking community support. It also provides a record, to be picked over, criticised and misrepresented, of failures, mistakes or simply principled policy positions that are deeply controversial. Regina Ip is richly endowed with all these attributes.
Most famously, or infamously depending on your point of view, she is associated, as Secretary for Security in 2002, with promoting the introduction of a security law in compliance with Article 23 of the Basic Law . Her mishandling of public concerns about the impact of such a bill culminated in July 2003 with a protest march by more than half a million people.
The Government dropped the bill, Regina Ip resigned and left for the United States. In Stanford she studied for a master’s degree and later returned to Hong Kong to found a think tank and become a politician.
In common with Hillary Clinton, this is Ms. Ip’s second attempt to be elected to the highest domestic office. She previously attempted to run as a candidate for Chief Executive in 2012, when she failed to accumulate sufficient nominations.
The comparison between the Presidency of the United States and the office of the Chief Executive of the HKSAR is not entirely risible. Successful women politicians must be determined, resilient and occasionally ruthless. Otherwise, they don’t succeed; and these qualities can be valuable in a political leader. And, like Hillary Clinton, Ms. Ip is undeniably relentless and indefatigable in pursuit of her goals.
The major question mark is over her judgment. Two recent examples stand out.
First, she revealed publicly that Beijing had wanted her to take on the role of President of Hong Kong’s Legco. She may have seen this as confirmation of Chinese confidence and support. Others may interpret it as their judgment of the highest and most suitable office open to someone of her capabilities. Not exactly a vote winning revelation for the Election Committee.
Secondly, she gave a bizarre interview to the Straits Times , a leading Singapore newspaper, in which she praised Singapore’s economic and commercial policies while denigrating those of Hong Kong, and deplored her hometown’s lack of competent leaders. Travelling overseas – or simply using foreign media – to attack one’s own territory does not play well with your local audience. It is difficult to discern what she was trying to achieve.
These concerns suggest that despite the time in the US and her work to reinvent herself with the think tank, and campaigning as a politician, the only thing that has changed about her over the years is her hair. Hairstyles play an oddly significant role in modern politics. Just ask Donald Trump.
However, consistency is not necessarily a bad thing and it can be argued the political climate has moved in her favour. After the Occupy trauma and the emergence of the localist movement, Beijing may want a strong woman in charge of Hong Kong. On the other hand, C Y (implicitly criticised by Ms. Ip in the Straits Times) has never been accused of weakness, yet many would struggle to describe his term of office a success.
In these circumstances, the comments of Wang Guangya, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, are significant. While avoiding indicating support for any candidate, he was clear that a successful candidate needed to love the country, love Hong Kong and be able to win the support of Hong Kong people. Ms. Ip is a potentially divisive figure.
Regardless of who will be the final candidates running in March, the core issue for Ms. Ip is whether she will prove to be the strong woman of the moment or a hostage to her past; whether she will be a public figure resurgent or redundant.
Arithmetic is critical in the March election. And the number that troubles Beijing is 326, the size of the pan-democratic bloc in the Election Committee. The more candidates there are, the greater the potential influence of the pan-democrats. Their ability to vote as a bloc is doubtful yet it remains a risk that Beijing will be determined to avoid.
The election of an ‘unsuitable’ pan-democratic-backed candidate would, of course, be unacceptable. Beijing’s inability to manipulate an electorate of only 1194 people would be an embarrassing loss of face. And a refusal to confirm the elected candidate in office would lead to serious disturbances in Hong Kong.
Thus, quite soon, Beijing will need a very small field of candidates that it approves. It can then throw its weight behind one of them. Ms. Ip’s dodgy judgment and questionable history may then count against her. Regina redundant.
However, she can draw comfort from the election of 2012, when detailed plans of Henry Tang’s illegal basement were suddenly revealed to the public, destroying his candidacy. Other candidates, Ms. Ip may ponder, could also have problems with their histories. Time, perhaps, to make a call to Moscow. Regina resurgent!