Tiger Head, Snake Tail

Leung doesn’t like talking on the phone long distance.
In that way, he reminds me of my mother. She was raised during the
Depression in the U.S.; Leung was raised dirt-poor in the Chai Wan
district of Hong Kong by strangers from his mother’s village. It pains
Leung (as it does my mom) to think about money spilling away by the
second as we speak, especially when he knows I’m coming back to Hong
Kong very soon.
    So when I ask him to give me his take on the whole brouhaha over
the special election to fill Ma Lik’s Legislative Council seat, he
stops our conversation with a most unsatisfying response: “You will be
back in three weeks. We can talk about it later. It’s just politics. “
    And then he signs off with that distinctive Hong Kong “bye bye”,
with the first syllable spoken at a higher pitch than the second.
    Leaving me to speculate about the strategic shifts and rapidly
changing alliances in Hong Kong’s fractuous pan-Democratic camp.
    I feel funny writing so much here about Hong Kong politics,
especially after spending so much time here in New York. I figure a lot
of people who read this blog could care less about the inside political
baseball of a city that’s best known internationally as a financial
services Mecca, not as a crucible of fledgling democracy facing a super-power that
seems hell-bent on eradicating any trace of people power. But once
you’ve been infected with the passion of the Hong Kong democracy
advocates, it’s hard to give up on them, even when they screw up or
falter. Let’s put it this way: some people are Yankees or Mets fans,
I’m rooting for the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats.
    The situation with the Legco seat vacated by the death of Ma Lik,
as far as I can discern from the Hong Kong newspapers is this: Regina
Ip, the former dragon lady in charge of Hong Kong’s Security, will
probably run for the seat as a pro-Beijing candidate when the elections
are held on December 2nd. Regina’s been away from Hong Kong long enough
for many people to forget about how much they hated her, and what a wicked witch she was when she was pushing for draconian “national security” laws in 2003.
    You non-Hong Kongers can imagine Regina Ip as a Chinese version of Condoleeza Rice, a brainy but scary yes-woman who left public service to go to academia rather than the other way ’round. But now, like a Category 5 storm, she’s reversing course again. Strangely, Hong Kong people seem to have forgotten Ip’s most infamous anti-democracy utterance: “Adolf Hitler was elected by universal suffrage and yet he killed 7 million Jews.” What remains in people’s minds after her 4 year sojourn in the USA is Ip’s name and prestige, which (as in
the U.S.) can be enough to swing a tight district election.
    Ip’s ambitious. Most analysts think she’s angling to be the next
Chief Executive of Hong Kong. If she wins this contest, it will be an
important step forward for her. However if she runs and loses, she’s probably
dead pork meat, politically speaking.
    The opposition, pro-Democracy camp understands this, and so all the
various parties have banded together and agreed to field one candidate,
their strongest. They are planning to hold a party primary to decide
who that will be.
    How frustrating it is to watch Democrats squabble, in New York, in
America or in Hong Kong! The very attributes that make them admirable
from a philosophical perspective seem to be the things that work
against them politically. Hong Kong’s pan-democrats are now engaged in
a messy broil. Some of the veteran party leaders have approached the only Hong Kong lady who can out-dragon the Dragon Ip: Hong
Kong’s former colonial administrator, Anson Chan (Fong On Saang). She
has the respect, the prestige, the name-recognition, and the steely helmet-hairdo to take on Ms.
Ip, and send her packing.
    But Leung doesn’t think Anson should get the nod. Not at all. And
yesterday, in one of his marvelous uses of old-school four-character
Cantonese aphorisms, he proclaimed to the Hong Kong press:


“Fu Tauh Seh Meih”. Long Hair says Anson Chan
has the “head of a tiger, the tail of a snake”. She comes in roaring, and
slithers out silently. In other words, she’s a cop out and doesn’t
deserve to be the pan-Democrats’ standard bearer.

I’m always telling Leung that he’s too outspoken, that he’s taking the
wrong side of things, that he should cooperate more with the other
democrats in the interest of pushing their agenda forward. What does it hurt to give a little? He always
smiles, ignores me, and goes right on doing what he does (with exceptions.
Thank god he scrapped the idea of the eyelid lift.)

But most of the time, Long Hair turns out to be right on the money,
politically. I remember doubting his wisdom in attacking Donald Tsang
almost as soon as he took office, when the Hong Kong CE had almost 90% approval ratings. Within 3 months, Tsang’s honeymoon was over, and
Long Hair’s ill-timed criticisms were looking prophetic. Within 6
months, Long Hair and his allies had successfully launched their new grassroots opposition
party, the LSD.

In this case, I’m with Long Hair.
Anson Chan doesn’t deserve to be the pan-Democratic candidate for this seat.
She’s been teasing the democrats for more than a year now, dangling her
public popularity like a prize, then slithering back at the last
minute, like a 1920s coquette in an Eileen Chang short story. If Anson
Chan had real backbone, and a genuine urge to push the cause of univesal suffrage in HK, she would have accepted the role of sacrificial
lamb and run for Chief Exec of Hong Kong last winter. Yeah, the game was rigged and she would have lost. But her beautiful, high-profile loss would have been a great gift to the Hong Kong people–and a righteous legacy for her.

She didn’t have anything to lose, personally or politically by playing the Democrat’s tiger–at 70, she’s too old to run for CE in 2012, and the Beijing government would never back her anyway. But she didn’t have the guts to do it. Anson Chan is too calculating to throw herself on the fire. I doubt
she’ll change her stripes and be moved by the entreaties of the old-line democratic leaders
Martin Lee and Yeung Sam. She’ll just tease for a while, then slip back
into her nest.

The other evening here in New York, some of my Cantonese (well, and one
Toisanese) friends arranged a going away treat for me. Yes, I have
finally learned how to play mah johng. We played from 7 in the evening
until 12 midnight, long enough for me to realize I will need at least a
year, perhaps more, to even get respectable at this. Play one round of
mah johng, and it seems easy, just like gin rummy only with cute tiles.
But play any longer, and as your bank account diminishes and your pride
is chewed to ribbons, you understand that the goal of this game is not
simply to win. The goal of mah johng is to win while making everyone
else lose.

Anson Chan is one of those mah johng players who cautiously saves up
her tiles for the big, big win–only to be defeated by the player who
“eats” (goes out) first.

And that could be Regina Ip. I hope it isn’t. In any case, the winds
are bound to blow in many different directions between now and election

I can’t wait to get back to Hong Kong.


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