When Anson Chan resigned as the longtime No. 2 of this city in 2001, she was legendary – hailed as a brilliant civil servant under both the British and Chinese. She left office amid a standing ovation, the most revered public figure in Hong Kong. Then she maintained a silence that lasted more than four years.
But Ms. Chan broke her silence this week, offering some democratic thunder and lightning to the world's press.
Her message: Hong Kong is a great international city, but its political health is poor. Efforts to forge a true democracy are bogged down, and the plain meaning and spirit of the handover terms of Hong Kong allowing fair elections, are being distorted. Hong Kong is not China, and has a right to advance and mature at its own pace, something promised by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, but not happening now.
All told, it is the most complete and penetrating critique, analysts say, of the lack of progress in achieving what Chan argues should have been a swift evolution toward direct elections promised after the 1997 handover by an insider who sat near the apex of power for years.
Her top grievance is a lack of "universal and equal suffrage," one man, one vote – by the Hong Kong government. Currently, Hong Kong's chief executive is not elected directly by voters, but by a body of hundreds of hand-picked pro-Beijing appointees. Only half of Hong Kong's legislature is directly elected.
Since Hong Kong has the right to reform "we need to ask why so little has happened in the nine years since Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty," she said in a speech given at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club downtown.
Few public figures here carry Chan's gravitas, something bound to vex authorities in Beijing. She is seen to epitomize a proud Hong Kong tradition of law and civil service, and of the city's cosmopolitan identity. British diplomats used to call her "St. Anson," only half-jokingly.
"If I can vote for her I will," says Victor Leung, a security guard on Hong Kong's subway. "She is for Hong Kong, and I trust her."
Yet Chan stopped short of saying she would be a candidate for chief executive, Hong Kong's top job, next year. Instead, she will form a "core group" of "clear thinkers," and is involved in democracy on its merits. "I have no personal agenda nor am I hungry for power," Chan said. "Having said that ... I believe it is important for Hong Kong people to be prepared to stand up and be counted."
In the past three years – most recently in December – crowds in the hundreds of thousands have marched here advocating greater self-rule. The marches, an embarrassment to Beijing, resulted in the removal by President Hu Jintao of unpopular chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Yet due to Hong Kong's Constitution, which Chan proposes to reform, political parties are excluded from actual rule.
Chan's emergence July 20 took place in a loaded context: the day before, Regina Ip, the unpopular former head of security in Hong Kong, emerged from a self-imposed exile in the US, with a new talk show and think tank. Ms. Ip left Hong Kong after protesters dragged an Ip effigy through the streets in July 2003. She now says she has reversed her previous position against greater political openness and is inviting democrats to debate her. Richard Baum, of the University of California, Los Angeles, says it looks like "united front tactics" – an effort to infiltrate then divide pro-democrats.
Also, during the media run-up to Chan's speech, current chief executive of Hong Kong, Donald Tsang, was in Singapore. He obliquely referred to her stand on universal suffrage by suggesting Hong Kong not "drag out" the debate. Instead, he praised Singapore's government for efficiency, and suggested Hong Kong can learn from its development of young leaders. Chan Yanchong of City University in Hong Kong points out that Singapore is efficient due to "its lack of dissenting voices."
"Singapore is not the ideal model," was the title of a South China Morning Post lead editorial the following day. "Singapore's autocratic political system is completely different to the one we have in Hong Kong."
Chan takes as a clear given that the handover stipulations that Hong Kong people are allowed to choose their own rule, the statements by Deng Xiaoping about "one country, two systems," and plain wording in the Basic Law that enshrine equal access and secret ballots – all point unambiguously to universal suffrage.
In recent weeks, Mr. Tsang has echoed President Hu's call for a "harmonious society." Responding to a question by the Monitor, Chan said that Hong Kong's famed "one country, two systems" formula should apply to the "harmonious society" notion as well. "A harmonious society means you have to listen to more than one point of view, it means the people feel like they can participate in a process that is fair. In the harmonious society, everybody has the right to choose their rulers."