Most Hong Kong people are too poor and dumb to be allowed to vote, according to the territory’s Beijing-appointed leader Leung Chun-ying.
A bizarre joint interview with three foreign publications, the Financial Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal has again given new life to the students and their supporters on the streets of the city.
If "you look at the meaning of the words ‘broadly representative,’ it’s not numeric representation,” Leung said.
“You have to take care of all the sectors in Hong Kong as much as you can,” he said, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month.”
“Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies,” he continued, suggesting business interests would suffer at the hands of the common voter. That income threshold leaves about 60 percent of the population deemed too poor to vote.
Outrage over the comments has been mixed with derision shared even by Alex Lo, the normally cautious South China Morning Post columnist, who said that when he saw the interview he thought it was a spoof from The Onion, the US satirical website.
In the interview Leung claimed that the version of “universal suffrage” offered by the National People’s Congress was a real choice rather than a choice between two or three pre-selected Communist Party approved candidates.
In this one interview Leung thus showed not simply that he was following the Beijing line on constitutional development but had contempt for the masses of poorer people in Hong Kong. At the time he was campaigning for selection in 2012 he made his concern for the poor his main platform. Yet in office he has proved just as beholden to the business oligopoly clique, principally landowners and developers, as his predecessors.
In the interview he demonstrated contempt for what he deemed “populism,” presumably meaning that broad public interests take second place to a business group which makes almost all its money from control of the domestic economy rather than international or genuinely competitive local business.
In doing so, he has focused attention on what many see as the underlying cause of discontent – the wealth and income gaps in Hong Kong which far exceed that of any economy of similar overall prosperity. Although the issue of the voting system for the 2017 chief executive election has been the main focus of protests, beneath it lie not just popular economic discontents but contempt for the quality of the government, contempt shared even by many in the top 10 percent of incomes.
The publication of the interview coincided with the first actual debate between student leaders and government ministers led by the No. 2, the smiling, well-meaning but ineffective Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam. The talks led nowhere as the government offered nothing beyond reporting issues to the State Council – not to the NPC which actually has the authority to give some ground to the protesters.
Nor did the government offer any other suggestions, such as making Legislative Council elections more democratic, which might have given cause for demonstrators to fold their tents after nearly three weeks of 24-hour protest.
The debate, insofar as there was one, showed the students to be more coherent than the clutch of officials, who are more the butt of lampoons than anger.
Irritated though many Hong Kong people are by the traffic diversions and delays caused by continued occupation of roads in the Central, Causeway Bay and Mongkok districts, the abysmal quality of government, and Leung's leadership in particular, has ensured that radical changes must happen in Hong Kong, maybe not this year but soon if public anger at a regime beholden not to public interests but to the dictates of Beijing and the tycoons is not to boil over repeatedly.
Leung has long been a loyal servant of Beijing. But only recently, with revelations of his HK$50 million dubious payout from a deal involving the sale of his bankrupt company to an Australian group, has money been shown to be another of his motivators.
He joins the long list of Hong Kong leaders found to wallow in sleaze: his rival for chief executive, Henry Tang, his predecessor Donald Tsang, and former Chief Secretary Raphael Hui, now on trial for corruption.
Meanwhile Beijing seems caught in a trap of its own making. Showing contempt for Hong Kong people and an almost total misunderstanding of business and economic affairs, it s advisers insist that the prosperity of Hong Kong depends on these tycoon-oligarchs remaining in de facto control.
As a result Beijing now suggests that Hong Kong's troubles are the work of foreign influence, presumably from Washington. Leung himself said as much in his interview but he has yet to produce any evidence. Indeed, it is another claim that further irritates Hong Kong people who know they are capable of making their own decisions.
Beijing, however, has wisely kept out of the Hong Kong fray so far, though doubtless at this time, with (the Central Committee Plenum underway, there are plenty of Xi Jinping’s critics who would like to use the situation against him.
Xi at least had no role in Leung's appointment. Leung's feeble links with top officials are generally thought to be with the protégés of Jiang Zemin. Anyway, Beijing would only interferes directly as a last resort.
The dilemma for Beijing is formidable. Leung must go for the good of everyone. Beijing must know that but cannot be seen to succumb to protests. Perhaps a medical emergency brought on by stress is the way out?