Those of us who remember “Broomhead” — the cruelly comic epithet used to describe Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee during the calamitous final chapter of her tenure as Hong Kong’s security chief  from 1998 to 2003 — have always struggled to accept her reincarnation as a popular legislative councillor, think-tank guru and would-be chief executive.

Her latest commentary in the South China Morning Post, which has for years provided a platform for her quest to become the city’s leader, only adds to that doubt.

Borrowing clumsily from Stanford University Professor Ian Morris’s 2010 book Why the West Rules—For Now, Ip conjures a dystopian future for Hong Kong from which, by implication, she would be the city’s greatest protector.

Regina Ip
Regina Ip. Photo: HKFP.

This, like the many other Ip commentaries in the SCMP, is yet another aspect of a reinvention campaign intended to add scholarly gravitas to a public persona once derided as shallow and elitist. But it just doesn’t work.

Instead, by grossly oversimplifying Morris’s complex theory of what he calls the “five horsemen of the apocalypse” that will decide the future of civilisations — climate change, famine, state failure, migration and disease — and forcing them into a tiny Hong Kong context, Ip has reinforced an enduring perception of her as a dilettante out of touch with the city she yearns to lead.

Hong Kong’s future under climate change is, as she concedes, pretty much dependent on cooperation and agreement among the international community, but she sees Morris’s other four horsemen in a far more local context.

Ip invokes the city’s encounters with severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu — both well handled by Hong Kong authorities at the time — as pointing toward a future public-health fiasco against which she calls for “a high level of vigilance” that, most observers would agree, is already in place.

As for the threat of migration, she reaches back to the Vietnamese boat people who flooded Hong Kong in the 1970s and 1980s, another crisis also fairly well managed given the challenge of the circumstances, and also refers to recent “anti-locust” protests against mainland visitors and clashes between locals and parallel traders along the border that seem downright trivial in comparison to, say, the migrant avalanche hitting Europe today.

For Ip, Morris’s political horseman of the apocalypse could be foreshadowed in Hong Kong by the “noisy protests” and “intensifying filibustering in the Legislative Council” that, again, don’t appear quite worthy of such an immense danger signal. But, in her most risible use of hyperbole, she foresees potential for future famine in the shortage of baby milk powder the city witnessed in 2012 and 2013.

anti-smuggling protests
Anti-smuggling protests.

If this painfully forced particularisation of Morris’s grand work serves to frighten people into supporting Ip’s bid to be chief executive, then let’s add a sixth horse to Morris’s theory and she is riding it. And let’s make sure we do not forget the ugly past as we contemplate a dystopian future.

After all, this is the woman who was chased out of office — not to mention out of town — for her dogged support of Article 23, the doomed anti-subversion legislation that brought 500,000 protesters into the streets for the July 1 handover anniversary of 2003, the biggest anti-government demonstration this city has witnessed since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.

Less than a month later, Ip resigned her office; her boss — Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa — would hang on for another 21 months before he, too, made a premature exit, citing “health issues” that everybody knew were a euphemism for his own deep-seated unpopularity. Since then, Tung himself has experienced a rebirth as vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and has recently started his own think tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation.

Clearly, abject failure in high office in Hong Kong does not stand in the way of future success. Just ask the once-disgraced and now reborn former financial secretary, Antony Leung Kam-chung, another member of the Tung administration forced to resign whose name is also currently being floated as a chief executive candidate.

tung chee-hwa
Tung Chee-hwa.

Of all these Lazarus-like political stories, however, Ip’s fall and rise is the most compelling. Scorned and reviled at the time of her resignation, she has managed, through genuine hard work and a lot of strategic re-imagining, to win over hearts and minds that had appeared to turn irrevocably against her and to position herself as a viable candidate for chief executive in 2017.

Of course, Hong Kong’s current leader, Leung Chun-ying, and his backers in Beijing may have a great deal to say about that. Leung, however, has his own problems as he has managed in his first two-plus years in office to make himself almost as unpopular as Ip was in her final year as secretary for security.

Thus, Ip has a real shot at winning the city’s top job, if not in 2017 then the next time around. Beijing likes her for her loyalty past and present, and many in Hong Kong have taken to the new, softer, more thoughtful and articulate Regina who returned to the city in 2006, after three years of self-imposed exile in the United States, with a master’s degree in East Asian Studies from Stanford University and a determined blueprint to rebuild her political career.

It started with her founding of the Savantas Policy Institute think tank and continued with her failed bid to win a 2007 Legislative Council by-election against former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, which was then followed by her triumphant 2008 comeback Legco victory in the Hong Kong Island geographical constituency.

New People's Party
New People’s Party logo. Photo: Wikicommons.

Since then, she has founded a pro-Beijing political party, the New People’s Party, and done everything possible to appear to be a caring, moderate intermediary between the powers that be in the central government and the people of Hong Kong.

It’s been a great act, but some of us just aren’t buying it.

Beyond the pretentious, self-serving pieces in the SCMP, Ip has also not lost her knack for occasional incendiary public remarks that reveal her true colours while also serving to divide further the city she aspires to lead. Her short-sighted elitism was once again on display when she explained away the 79-day Occupy demonstrations by positing that the protesters probably preferred sleeping in the streets to their own squalid subdivided quarters.

And what about the time she faulted sexually abused Filipina domestic helpers for flirting with their employers?

The list goes on.

Yes, some people can change and the change can indeed be dramatically for the better, but there are too many indications that Ip is not one of those people.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.