One can only hope that, with the divisive Leung Chun-Ying now watching the race for chief executive from the sidelines, this will be the year in which the sad cycle of failed executive leadership in Hong Kong is finally broken.

Starting in 1997 with the plodding Tung Chee-hwa, the chain of fecklessness and dysfunction has now stretched through three different administrations and nearly 20 post-handover years. Given this long and sorry record of maladministration, it is astonishing that, thanks to the dogged common sense and hard work of Hong’s 7.3 million people, the city still functions as well as it does.

July 1st Protest democracy communist party robot
File photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

While Hong Kong continues to be a dazzling place to live and work, its bad politics is clearly undermining its good reputation. This past year, the Legislative Council became a virtual war zone where oaths are mangled, lawmakers are defrocked and nearly every issue and debate is poisoned by bitterly partisan politics.

Moreover, as the forces of localism and calls for self-determination and independence have gathered steam, protests in the city—once a model of peaceable order and civility—have taken on a nasty tinge of violence and, indeed, on the eve of the Lunar New Year last February, exploded into a brick-and-glass-throwing orgy in Mong Kok the likes of which Hong Kong had not seen since the riots of 1966 and 1967 inspired by the mass upheaval of the Cultural Revolution across the border.

Leung’s announcement last month that he would not seek reelection was greeted by a palpable wave of relief across the city, but the widely reviled leader’s exit from the political stage solves none of Hong Kong’s problems; nor does it change the reality that the CE’s job will continue to be a poisoned chalice for anyone who takes it up unless the person occupying the position summons the courage and is granted the leeway to stand up for the city and for the autonomy and unique freedoms it is guaranteed under the Basic Law as a special administrative region of China.

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Leung Chun-ying. File photo: Philippe Lopez./AFP.

Unfortunately, with the exception of retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, whose quixotic quest for the city’s top job has zero chance of success, none of the current CE aspirants promises to do anything other than carry on with the hopelessly flawed system of governance that has seen our chief executive morph into little more than a spokesperson—and, in Leung’s case, a wilfully combative one—for the central government’s liaison office.

Of course, now that former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has jumped into the CE contest, there is a sporting excitement over her impending battle with two other political heavyweights—Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the former security tsar and current lawmaker who has already formally declared her candidacy, and John Tsang Chun-wah, who recently resigned after serving nine years as financial secretary and is expected to declare now his resignation has been accepted by Beijing.

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Carrie Lam, Regina Ip, John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing. Photo: HKFP remix.

The fact that Chinese authorities have kept Tsang, who resigned more than a month ago, dangling in suspense is a clear signal that he must learn to toe Beijing’s line and is currently not the favoured candidate in the corridors of power up north; that honour appears to belong to Lam, who last week stepped down as chief secretary on Thursday morning and, by that afternoon, was already touting her “achievable new vision” for Hong Kong, which included a call for greater unity, more and better jobs and improved care for the disadvantaged and elderly.

She also, however, found herself increasingly on the defensive against a rising tide of anger and protest over the secret deal she struck to build a HK$3.5 billion replica of the Palace Museum as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) , whose governing board she chaired as chief secretary.

In her usual, blunt manner, Lam responded to questions about the board’s lack of transparency in approving the project by saying it would have been “embarrassing” to open a public consultation that was politicised by anti-Beijing forces in the city. Her decision to push ahead, she implied, was exactly the sort of resolute leadership needed in Hong Kong.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

Maybe so, but now Lam finds herself facing charges that she violated an ordinance requiring a public consultation (which has now farcically begun after the fact for the Palace Museum replica) for any new facility in the arts hub. In addition, she and the rest of the WKCD board have been accused of breaching the city’s anti-discrimination law by stipulating that only a local Chinese architect (who turned out to be Rocco Yim, the city’s most famous) could be hired for the project.

While Lam’s bold action on the Palace Museum may be the kind of helmsmanship Beijing is looking for in Hong Kong, it is also a recipe for exacerbating, not healing, the city’s deep political divide. Yes, this is a worthy project, but far less worthy when conceived in secrecy and then imposed on the city without any form of public colloquy.

And so Dame Regina waits in the wings hoping the weaknesses of the two front-runners conjoin to create an opening for her to achieve what has long been her dream. It looked like her political career was finished in 2003 when a 500,000-strong protest against anti-subversion legislation forced her resignation as secretary for security and prompted her to leave the city to further her political education at Stanford University in the United States.

Regina Ip.
Regina Ip.

But she returned to Hong Kong with a master’s degree in East Asian studies and, after an initial loss in a Legislative Council by-election to Hong Kong’s first chief secretary, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, went on to win a LegCo seat, create her own political party and be appointed to the Executive Council, all the while rebuilding her reputation and becoming one of the city’s most popular political figures.

There is no shortage of plot lines and backstories in Hong Kong’s upcoming race for chief executive. On the surface, it’s a gripping entertainment.

Look a little deeper, however—while the face and personality of leadership will change, nothing else will alter.

Enjoy the spectacle; suffer the result.

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.