Regina Ip wants to become Hong Kong’s most powerful politician – and she’s not shy about it. The BBC’s Helier Cheung profiles the straight-talking “Iron Lady” as part of a series on the Asian women likely to make the news in 2017.
Her uncompromising stance and her former role as Hong Kong’s first female secretary for security is what prompted the media to nickname 66-year-old Regina Ip the “Iron Lady”.
While many of her likely competitors have been coy about their aspirations, Ms Ip has been openly ambitious for years. But then, she’s always been more colourful – and confrontational – than many politicians.
She has described Hitler as proof that democracy doesn’t solve all problems, accused Filipino domestic workers of being sex workers for foreign men, and brushed off animal rights activists who criticised her for wearing fur, calling it “the same as eating beef”.
She went from being Hong Kong’s most popular government minister to its most reviled, left Hong Kong for the US after a row over national security legislation drove 500,000 to the streets, and then returned to lose, and then win, popular elections.
Now, many opposition politicians have rallied against her bid to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive, saying she would spell “RIP” (a pun on her initials) for Hong Kong.
But, Ms Ip told the BBC her unpopularity with some doesn’t bother her, since she’s “used to criticism” and has been “doing tough and thankless jobs for a long time”.
The daughter of a trader and an actress, Ms Ip says her family struggled financially after her father’s business ran into trouble.
She studied English literature at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Glasgow, but despite her love of WB Yeats, she was pragmatic even as a student.
“I wanted to be an academic,” she says, “but academic jobs in that area were very hard to come by.”
So she applied to work in Hong Kong’s civil service, knowing it would provide the “security of tenure and pay well”, and eventually became Hong Kong’s first female director of immigration.
But it is for her role as security minister, where she advocated for Article 23 – a controversial piece of national security legislation – that she is most well known.
Article 23 would have prohibited acts of treason and sedition and given Hong Kong the power to outlaw groups banned in mainland China.
Ms Ip was seen as out of touch when defending the bill. Ahead of a planned protest, Ms Ip said some might join the march for fun because it was a public holiday, rather than because they were actually opposed to the proposal.
In the end, half-a-million protesters rallied in one of the territory’s largest-ever demonstrations.
Many chanted “Broomhead – step down!” – using a nickname Ms Ip had been given after critics mocked her bushy hairstyle.
The government was forced to shelve the bill and Ms Ip resigned as security minister and went abroad to study at Stanford University.
“People remember me for the national security law I championed and failed, but people have forgotten the contributions I made,” she laments.
She admits she “did not do a good enough job” explaining it to the public, but has few regrets. What concerned her more was the impact on her daughter, who was a teenager at the time.
Ms Ip’s husband died in 1997 and she describes balancing work and home life in the early 2000s as “truly very difficult, because I was a single parent”.
She says her daughter was teased at school, with classmates calling her “little broomstick”.
In the end, she sent her daughter to boarding school in the US, saying it offered a “less controversial environment”, while she herself studied for a Master’s – her third – at Stanford University.
She says she needed the “three years outside government… to do some normal parenting”, and her relationship with her daughter improved as a result.
On her return from the US, she started a think tank and stood in legislative council elections. She lost out to Anson Chan, a popular pro-democracy candidate, on her first attempt, but went on to win seats in the next three elections – coming out top in her constituency in the most recent vote.
Ms Ip made a bid for the Chief Executive role in 2012 but had to drop out after failing to receive enough nominations. In March 2017’s elections, she’ll be competing against former judge Woo Kwok-hing.
Two political heavyweights, ex-Finance Secretary John Tsang and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, are also expected to throw their hats in the ring.
So what sort of Chief Executive would Ms Ip be?
She has pledged to improve Hong Kong’s housing policy and narrow the income gap. More controversially, she has promised to revive the Article 23 bill, arguing that it does not threaten Hong Kong’s freedoms.
She also intends to implement a contentious political reform package proposed by Beijing – that would give Hong Kongers the right to vote for their leader – but only from a list of candidates approved by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing groups. That proposal was voted down by parliament in 2015.
On social issues, she would like to legislate against LGBT discrimination, and supports Hong Kong’s bid to host the Gay Games in 2022 – but has stopped short of stating her position (link in Chinese) on same-sex marriage.
She says sexism still exists in Hong Kong politics and criticises the media for “focusing on a female politician’s hairstyle, clothing and make up” rather than her work.
She’d like to see more young women enter politics, and would consider reserving some seats on Hong Kong’s election committee (the 1,200-member panel that chooses Hong Kong’s leader) for women.
Murky elections ahead
If this were a popular election, Ms Ip’s biggest challenge might be the perception that she is cold and out of touch.
John Tsang is considered more popular with the public and his Instagram page is peppered with photos of locals taking selfies with him.
By contrast, Ms Ip looked reserved and a little uncomfortable while doing a Facebook Live with the South China Morning Post, and her campaign logo was mocked on social media after people pointed out part of the logo looked like a Chinese word that means “slowness due to old age”.
Ms Ip has brushed off questions about Mr Tsang’s popularity, saying that those who play nice aren’t always the best leaders.
She points out that out of all four expected candidates, she is the only one to have been through popular elections.
But this is an election that will be decided by a small committee, and a majority of the electors will almost certainly vote for whichever candidate Beijing backs.
The Chinese government hasn’t made its intentions clear, but many analysts believe Ms Lam or Mr Tsang are more obvious choices for Beijing, with Ms Lam likely to be the favourite.
It is clear that success for Ms Ip in next year’s elections is far from guaranteed.
On the other hand, the “Iron Lady” has shown time and again that she isn’t someone who gives up easily.