The Fall and Rise of Regina Ip

Who says there are no second acts in politics? In Hong Kong, the curtain is rising on one with powerful implications for the pace and scope of political reform in the former British colony, with a caustic former cabinet secretary blamed for massive antigovernment protests four years ago cast in the leading role. Regina Ip, whose ill-fated drive to enact sweeping antisubversion legislation (known as Article 23) brought half a million demonstrators onto Hong Kong's streets back in 2003, is poised to garner the endorsement of several pro-Beijing parties in a bellwether Legislative Council by election scheduled for December. She is expected to announce her candidacy this week.

The stakes—a seat in the city's 60-member Legislative Council vacated when the leader of Hong Kong's largest pro-Beijing political group succumbed to cancer on Aug. 8—are higher than the modest prize suggests. For the first time ever, Hong Kong's two main political camps will go toe-to-toe in a single, winner-take-all race that could become the prototype for future elections to choose the city's chief executive. Beijing has yet to approve revisions to the old system (whereby China handpicks the chief executive), but its resistance to reform could soften if the pro-China camp proves its ability to win at the ballot box against an alliance of democratic parties that historically grabs most of the popular vote.

In that sense, Ip's campaign could prove a turning point. "We don't know if [her comeback] says anything about Hong Kong's political evolution until we see whether she wins or not," cautions Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. "If she cannot poll better than about 40 percent, it says she has been completely unable to appeal beyond the pro-Beijing, pro-business hardcore."

At first blush, Ip seems a risky standard-bearer. As point-person for former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's ill-fated campaign to railroad Article 23 through LEGCO four years ago, her approval rate tumbled from the high 60s to the low 30s. Ip's penchant for caustic outbursts fanned demonstrations and enraged supporters of one-person, one-vote democracy, which she derided with the quip: "Adolf Hitler was returned by universal suffrage, and he killed 7 million Jews." After massive pro-democracy marches engulfed the city on July 1, 2003, Tung shelved Article 23 and Ip resigned. Citing "health problems," Tung following her out of office in March, 2005.

Unlike Tung, however, Ip refused to stay in history's dustbin. Choosing instead to salvage her image and mount a political comeback, she studied politics under Stanford luminary Larry Diamond, penning a master's thesis arguing for full democratization in Hong Kong as early as 2012 (a study even her rivals in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp deem substantial). In mid-2006 Ip returned home, established a think tank to promote her views and entered what in the American context would be called the "exploratory phase" of a LEGCO campaign—by criticizing the government on certain issues, speaking before friendly audiences (including Hong Kong's large contingent of cops and firemen—who she says deserve a pay raise) and courting the two leading pro-Beijing parties for their backing. Ip has also kept her sharp tongue in check by limiting unscripted media encounters. As her assistant explained, she declined a NEWSWEEK interview request on the grounds that "whatever she says stands a high risk of being twisted and used against her."

Ip presumptive candidacy illustrates the high value the Chinese leadership places on loyalty. Analysts say Beijing feels indebted to her for pushing Article 23 at the cost of her own career. And in Hong Kong, "many pro-Beijing folks thought Regina took the heat unfairly for a policy Beijing wanted done," says DeGolyer. "Regina is a hero to [them] and they feel she is owed the race." China's economic boom, its knock-on effect of fast growth in Hong Kong and the increasing influence of mainland companies in the city could generate a significant tailwind for Ip. "There is an assumption that if you are Beijing's candidate you will have a lot of resources to campaign," says Christine Loh, a former legislator and founder of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

Back in 2003, antigovernment demonstrators cursed Ip and paraded grotesque effigies of her in the streets. That alone assures that, should she participate, the December race will be hotly contested and prone to high drama. "It's conceivable that she could win," says political commentator Frank Ching. Which, love her or hate her, is testament to Ip's refusal to exit stage left.