Hong Kong’s Democrats Chafe Against Beijing

Hong Kong politics are becoming ever more convoluted as March 2017 legislative elections approach, with a growing list of candidates to replace widely disliked Chief Executive CY Leung, and with obstreperous localists – vainly advocating home rule for the city of 7 million – elected earlier in 2016 willing to disrupt the legislative process.

But the result will not be in doubt – whatever Beijing wants, Beijing will get. The only issue is whether Beijing will listen to local dissatisfaction or decide that this is no time for compromising party authority in the interests of the territory’s semi-democratic set-up and expectations of autonomy.

The victories of six young localist candidates, two appearing to advocate independence, was initially seen as a victory for Hong Kong’s Two Systems expectations in the face of pressures to focus on Beijing’s One Country demands.

But two of the young localists overstepped the bounds of common sense by turning their oath-taking at the start of the Legislative Council (Legco) session into a farce, using the ceremony as an opportunity to protest against the mainland. Their swearing-in oaths contained what were perceived as insults to Beijing. As a result, their oaths were not accepted.

Although the President of the Council then said he would allow the two, Yau Wai-Ching and Baggio Leung, to redo the ceremony, the government challenged the ruling with a lawsuit. The President then reversed course. The Council’s work is thus frozen, the pro-democracy camp embarrassed by the two’s behavior but also unwilling to accept that they be excluded from the chamber until the legal challenge, which will take months, is finally adjudicated.

All this works to the advantage of CY Leung who is seeking re-selection (by a 1,200 member Election Committee of assorted but mostly pro-Beijing members) on March 26 next year. The Legco events have distracted attention from repeated missteps by Leung, whose popularity has long been at a very low level. It also showed Beijing that Leung was tough and would take a no-nonsense approach to localists regardless of popularity.

Meanwhile as there must be at least a semblance of choice, two other candidates, Financial Secretary John Tsang and veteran pro-Beijing legislator Regina Ip, have been limbering up with frequent media appearances prior to being given the green light by Beijing to declare their candidacies.

Leung’s party was however then spoiled by an unexpected event. A senior retired judge, Woo Kwok-hing, suddenly announced his own candidacy. Although never in government, the 70-year old Woo has led several high profile inquiries at which he showed himself to be conservative but independent-minded, thoughtful and aware of public sentiment. In media appearances, Woo has lashed out at Leung as a divisive figure and failed leader. Appearing fluent, humorous and relaxed, the rotund Woo appears a striking contrast both to the ever-stern Leung, and the more relaxed but far from eloquent or forceful style of Tsang.

Some see Woo as a stalking horse for Tsang, likely to withdraw once he has done enough to promote the idea known as ABC—Anyone But CY. It is also thought unlikely that, whatever the public felt, he would ever be able to gather sufficient votes to challenge Leung. Also he is probably regarded with some suspicion by Beijing as a product of the English-based legal system with its emphasis on division of powers, a doctrine again anathema to a Communist party under Xi Jinping. He also made his move without consulting Beijing.

Woo has yet to present any specific policy platform yet his very appearance in the contest puts pressure on Tsang. Leung in turn is embarrassed by the fact that he is now supposed to be hard at work preparing the 2017-2018 budget due for delivery early next year. Also, for the first time it is due to coincide with the Chief Executive’s policy address. Hence it is very difficult for Tsang to map out a policy agenda as a candidate which differs greatly from that of Leung, or of his own decision as Financial Secretary.

Tsang’s more fundamental problem is that in seven years as Financial Secretary he has done nothing remotely innovative to improve a badly skewed tax system, his annual budgets being mainly occasions for announcing big surpluses and a few handouts – mostly to the middle class – to mollify critics of the size of the surpluses.

For Beijing, Tsang’s advantage is that he is clearly not going to do anything radical, is currently quite liked – at least compared with most other senior officials – by the public and manages to be critical of the localists but in an un-threatening way. He is also acceptable to the tycoon elite, mostly the property and utility sectors, who have never liked Leung. Their clout, however, is declining as mainland firms muscle in on some of their turf.

Against Tsang is that Beijing prefers the devil it knows and can trust absolutely to follow instructions. They see Tsang as too much in the mold of the previous chief executive, Donald Tsang, another career bureaucrat who was popular when he came in to replace the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa but ended up in disgrace.

Regina Ip remains an outside possibility as she is well-known, liked by some and always in the end loyal to Beijing. However, she is viewed as volatile and can be unpredictable. Being a woman is also surely a negative for an almost 100 percent male Beijing leadership.

The outcome of all this may not matter very much as far as the future of Hong Kong is concerned. But the coming months may at least provide some entertainment for a public whose influence on the outcome is marginal.