Secret contest for colony's top job

Stephen Vines in Hong Kong says Peking is likely to have the final say in elections to appoint a chief executive before 1997

No one has dared declare their candidature. No one openly acknowledges that the contest is under way. Only a few will admit to having been consulted on the most important choice facing the incoming Chinese administration of Hong Kong.

And yet the competition is already fierce to claim the coveted post of first Chief Executive of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. The choice will probably be made towards the end of this year, giving the selected person a year to prepare for the job.

In theory, the Chief Executive "shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally"; in practice, the decision is likely to be made at the highest levels in Peking and any election is almost certain to be a procedure for endorsing a choice already made.

Earlier this week Qian Qichen, China's Foreign Ministertold a visiting delegation of former Hong Kong civil servants, who, incidentally, are elbowing their way into the selection process, that the Chief Executive should be trusted by China, have the support of Hong Kong people and its civil servants, have knowledge of the machinery of government and experience of managing a large organisation.

His statement was interpreted as meaning that China was looking for a tame former civil servant with a reasonable degree of credibility among the population. This has focused attention on the diminutive John Chan, 52, who two years ago astutely took early retirement from the civil service, which he had served in a number of senior roles. His timing ensured that he had the opportunity to be senior enough to serve on the Executive Council, effectively the Governor's cabinet, yet gave enough time to distance himself from the Governor Chris Patten, who is heartily disliked by China.

A former civil service colleague describes him as being "a perfect diplomat, too bloody diplomatic at times". He is famous for keeping his head down. Even those closest to him have little idea what he really believes. Mr Chan now runs one of Hong Kong's two bus companies and serves as an adviser to the Chinese government on Hong Kong affairs.

In recent days, however, local newspapers have been crammed with speculation about the top job going to Anson Chan, who is the Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong government and the most senior Chinese official ever to serve in the colony. Two recent visits to China, a television series about her famous grandfather (a general who switched sides from the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek to the Communists during the Chinese civil war) and a less than discreet bout of self publicity, have helped reinforce the view that she is running for office. But she may be campaigning to keep her own job rather than to seize the bigger prize.

A safer pair of hands, in Chinese eyes, may be the elderly Sir Sze Yuen Chung, who served as the Senior Member of the Executive Council in the early 1980s during the Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong. He was one of the first members of the old colonial establishment to make himself agreeable to the new order and become an adviser to the Chinese government.

At one time it was thought that China decided to describe the head of government as the chief executive because the government wanted a leading businessman to take on the role. An obvious candidate was Li Ka-shing, reputedly Hong Kong's richest man. However he has adamantly denied any interest and insisted that the post should be filled by a serving or former civil servant.

Less reticent, or to put it another way, more willing to run over broken glass, is David Li, a banker and legislator who comes from the famous Li clan, the nearest Hong Kong has to a blue-blood family.

The decision on the top job will be the subject of intense faction fighting within the Chinese bureaucracy. The winner will be the candidate who is least offensive to all parties. This is hardly a recipe for strong leadership but the suspicion in Hong Kong is that strong leadership is the last thing wanted by China.

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