Beijing Anoints Yet Another Hong Kong Chief Executive

The contest for next Chief Executive for Hong Kong may be almost over before it has begun. Four candidates are at present in the frame but Beijing has now made it abundantly clear whom it favors – outgoing Chief Secretary for Administration, Carrie Lam. The others thus may simply be decoration.

The efforts that Lam has made to show complete loyalty to outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying and hence to the central government – which she now refers to as the “central people’s government” – have paid off. Indications have been coming thick and fast from leading local members of the National People’s Congress that she is most fitted to the job, despite the fact that her main rival, John Tsang, who has been Financial Secretary for seven years, is more popular, according to opinion polls, and with the business community.

Tsang’s bid has been deliberately frustrated by Beijing. He resigned as Financial Secretary on Dec.12 in order to campaign for the top job, but his resignation has yet to be accepted by Beijing.

Meanwhile Lam delayed her resignation to last week. Acceptance of both resignations is now expected soon, but meanwhile Lam was accorded another indication of mainland backing. On yet another visit to the capital she returned to announce what was supposed to be a great coup for Hong Kong – an agreement with Beijing’s Palace Museum for Hong Kong to have a permanent display of some of these national treasures. It would be housed in a museum to be built in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, and paid for by a HK$3 billion grant from the Jockey Club, notionally a charity which has a gambling monopoly.

Lam was thus able to display “patriotism” – but in a way which showed not just contempt for local views but abused normal procedures to an extent shocking to someone with a lifetime as a cog in the bureaucratic system. Grabbing Jockey Club funds, which are supposed to be for welfare and educational purposes, was a blatant use of what the government has treated as a slush fund to avoid having to get legislative council approval for the outlay.

Furthermore Lam bypassed the procedures of the Cultural District authority, which she heads, and announced that the museum would take the place of a venue supposedly reserved for the performing arts. Equally contemptuous of procedure, it was revealed that a local architect had already been appointed to draw up plans.

There was no tendering, no competition. Rocco Yim Sen-kee is an internationally known architect but also a Hong Kong insider who designed the much-criticized Hong Kong office government office complex. Lam defended it partly on the grounds it needed “a local Chinese architect who must understand Chinese arts and cultures.” That in itself drew comment from the Equal Opportunities Commission, as it excluded all Hong Kong people not of Chinese ethnic origin.

In any case there are other Hong Kong architects of repute, not to mention the foreign ones whom China has employed for iconic buildings in Beijing, and elsewhere.

The lack of competition, the use of insider channels, is claimed to help get things done quickly and surely. But to many in Hong Kong it appeared to reflect the arrogance of the top civil servants, and far from emphasizing the capabilities of Hong Kong people was simply a surrender to Beijing’s desire for the museum as a patriotic symbol. Local people might have preferred a museum of Guangdong culture.

As it is, the Palace Museum in Beijing is known more for the magnificence of its buildings than its artifact displays.

Lam’s patriotic zeal was also all part of her effort to cleanse herself of colonial era connections – always suspect in Beijing’s eyes. It was preceded by a family move. Her husband and son had long been apart from her, living in Cambridge, England, to which she once said she would retire. But last year the husband and son moved to very comfortable positions in Beijing.

Just possibly, Lam’s efforts at self-promotion will backfire. The museum procedure has angered many, not just the pan-democratic camp. Once seen as smiling and good natured, a tougher and darker side to Lam has now been revealed. Back-door methods are especially under scrutiny given that previous chief executive Donald Tsang is currently on trial for corruption for receiving advantages, including a public honor, from a friend. Lam’s claim that it was god’s request that she campaign for selection also brought much ridicule and the suggestions that her god lived at Zhongnanhai.

The campaign itself, once underway, just might produce some surprising facts. The 2012 selection process saw the frontrunner undone by revelations of building illegal structures.

But John Tsang is seen by Beijing as a reliable implementer of conservative fiscal policies but has indicated that government should be more willing to listen to localist sentiments than has been the case with Leung.

Just such an independent streak has been shown by the third contender for the top job, Regina Ip. Forced to resign in 2003 over of her unpopular hard-line policy as Secretary for Security, she re-invented herself as a quasi-democratic politician and is a directly elected member of the Legislative Council. She is normally pro-government and pro-Beijing but an effective political campaigner – unlike any of Hong Kong’s three chief executives to date. She is too unpredictable for Beijing’s liking.

According to the opinions polls, the most popular candidate is the one with least hope of success – retired judge Woo Kwok-hing. Articulate and good-humored, Woo is beholden to no particular group – a fundamental weakness in a system in which the chief executive is chosen by the 1,200 members of the election committee. Some of these represent large constituencies, but most are chosen by small-circle elections and susceptible to pressure from the Liaison office – Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong. Woo may not even make it past – 150 nominations from members of the 1,200 electors due to many pro-democracy members voting either for one candidate or one with scant hope of getting 150.

There is still just a chance of new candidates. Many would favor Tsang Yok-sing, till last year the president of the Legislative Council and former head of the largest pro-Beijing party, the DAB. Despite his long association with the Communist party, dating back to the 1967 Cultural Revolution riots, Tsang Yok-sing is widely respected for being able to negotiate with opponents and communicate with the public. He has made no public moves to become a candidate yet to state formally that he will not stand. His past record of party loyalty and patriotism should in principle commend him to Beijing. But suggestions that he is too old or insufficiently experienced with administration are probably a cover for concern that he is too flexible, and too open to sympathy for the restive young generation. Beijing prefers bureaucrats used to taking orders and needing to keep proving their patriotic credentials. Lam fits that bill.

Since 1997, Beijing has ordered the anointment of three chief executives for Hong Kong. The first, CH Tung, ended up being forced out of office. The second, Donald Tsang, is on trial for taking favors. The third, Leung Chun-ying, has become so unpopular that he is quitting. Perhaps Beijing ought to rethink its method of picking the territory's leaders.