Peking's firm friend launches bid to run HK

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Some Hong Kong people think he is mad, some think he's merely bad, while others see him as something of a genius. Few have a neutral view of Lo Tak-shing, 61, the first person to declare his candidature for the post of Chief Executive, or head of government, in the post-colonial administration.

Until recently, the hot money for the appointment had been on the shipping magnate Tung Chee-hwa, but there are signs Mr Tung is getting cold feet. No sooner were these views made public than Mr Lo jumped into the breach, declaring the need for the Chief Executive to be a hard-liner who would be firm in carrying out the government's policies.

Few people doubt Mr Lo is a hard-liner. He has been among the most hawkish of the Chinese government's Hong Kong advisers and has established a weekly news magazine to spread his robust views on how to establish the new order. However, Chinese leaders may best remember him for the way he rushed to Peking after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to offer support.

His detractors describe Mr Lo as a yes man. This claim is hard to substantiate, as became clear in the aftermath of the 1982 Sino-British negotiations, which led to the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty.

After the treaty ratifying the deal was signed in 1984, Mr Lo walked out of the Executive Council, the Governor's cabinet, accusing Britain of betraying the people of Hong Kong. He even set up a company to provide cash for those wanting to emigrate.

Mr Lo then retreated briefly to the background, only to emerge with a passionate commitment to the incoming Chinese regime. His commitment is so absolute that he has acquired a Chinese passport in order to fully identify with the motherland. The fact that Hong Kong people are not supposed to carry Chinese passports has been brushed aside, even though there are suggestions it was improperly acquired.

The passport, like Mr Lo's new found mastery of Mandarin, and his assiduous cultivation of Chinese leaders, are only the outward signs of his conversion.

When China was first thinking about the post of Chief Executive, President Jiang Zemin said the new chief would have to enjoy mass support. Reports in Hong Kong say the Communist Party has circulated an internal document saying such support is no a longer a criterion; Peking wants someone who can get along with the business community and civil servants and who can be trusted by the central government.

But can Mr Lo be trusted? Wang Wenfang, a former senior Chinese official in Hong Kong, has publicly expressed serious doubts about Mr Lo, whom he accused of adopting "an unorthodox and devious approach". In fact Mr Lo is not devious. He operates like a street fighter when tackling his enemies and, unlike them, is prepared to put himself under the spotlight.

A few months ago few people thought Mr Lo was a contender for the top job. Now he is. This says more about the way Chinese thinking has changedthan it does about Mr Lo.