What is it about Rita Fan that makes Hong Kong hate her so?

Stephen Vines
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:14

SMILES are not usually sinister but Rita Fan's is an exception. Hers seems to have been surgically implanted. It appears when she is introduced to someone and does not budge until she moves on to the next item on her list.

The president of Hong Kong's new legislature, 52 year old Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, is arguably the most hated public figure in the former colony and certainly one of the most ardent supporters of the new post-colonial order. Having enthusiastically announced her retirement from public life in 1992, she is back with a vengeance.

Mrs Fan has been using her position on the legislature - an appointed body which replaced an elected one - to propel herself into the very front ranks of the new regime's most ardent flag wavers.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly why she is so widely disliked; suffice to say that when Hong Kong's Chinese language newspapers refer to a "person often called Jiang Qing", everyone knows who they are talking about. Jiang Qing, the leader of China's Cultural Revolution Gang of Four and wife of Mao Zedong, became, in Chinese minds, the embodiment of a terrifying female leader.

Mrs Fan has not ordered the deaths of thousands of people, nor has she wrought mayhem on the community, but she suffers from what public relations people would call a severe image problem.

Part of it is derived from that smile: it is so unnatural it sets people's teeth on edge. Partly she suffers from acute foot in mouth syndrome. When the parents of children born in China sought legal aid to prevent their deportation, she was the first to question why the public should be paying to take the government to court.

When sham elections were being held for the legislature which replaced the genuinely elected body, she was for ever popping up on television screens telling the highly sophisticated Hong Kong people that they did not understand the complexities of democracy and that an election by 400 people was, once you considered the complexities, just the same as universal suffrage.

Her body language also speaks volumes. Standing eagerly beside senior Chinese officials at receptions and other gatherings she can always be seen with the smile, a tilted head and a frown of concentration as she makes it clear that every word they utter will be savoured.

People notice these things, just as they cannot help noticing that thissame Rita Fan adopted an identical attitude when she served as one of what the Chinese Communist Party used to call 'colonial lackeys'. Mrs Fan, Commander of the British Empire, was right up there with the creme de la creme of the lackeys. She was a favourite of Governor David Wilson and his wife Natasha. Indeed she served as a member of Sir David's cabinet.

She might have been happy to continue had not the new governor Chris Patten quickly decided that he did not want her as any kind of adviser. It was then that she declared that public life was no longer her cup of tea.

For two years after her supposed retirement from public life she took the fairly extraordinary decision of going to work for the Emperor Group run by Albert Yeung. Mr Yeung is euphemistically known as a "colourful character", a term usually taken to mean that he is no stranger to courts of law.

Not only have his companies made regular appearances before the regulatory authorities but Mr Yeung has also featured in his own right as a defendant. One appearance resulted in a criminal conviction for the intimidation of a witness, a second saw him walk free after all the witnesses in this case suffered a bout of collective amnesia.

Although it might seem strange for a former cabinet member to plunge into a company run by Mr Yeung, it may not quite be such a departure for the Shanghai-born Mrs Fan. Her father is rumoured to have been a senior member of the notorious Green Gang, one of the most powerful triad criminal gangs in Shanghai.

An American reporter plucked up the courage to ask her whether the rumour was true. "In those days, when I was young", she said, "the grown-ups would do their thing and we kids did not ask too many questions. So I do not know."

This is generally the fashion when she is confronted with something she does not like. On goes that smile and out comes an uninformative gush of words.

Next year there will be something approaching a real election for the legislature. Even Mrs Fan recognises that she has zero chance of being elected in any of the constituencies where there are more than a handful of electors. Fortunately, at least as far as she is concerned, the government has concocted a number of rotten boroughs where popularity will not be an issue.

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