Hong Kong's Election Risks Becoming a Farce

The media scrum was unprecedented. Cameramen perched atop six cranes hired for the purpose to beam live footage of Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Henry Tang's twin properties in Kowloon Tong on primetime TV newscasts. You could have easily assumed a millionaire family was mass-murdered or a special forces raid was in progress against a terrorist bomb-making bunker.

It was all far more trivial. Five buildings department inspectors were confirming the vast illegal structure constructed without planning permission under Tang's twin luxury homes. The candidate to take over as Hong Kong’s chief executive hadn’t declared this despite an executive order to Executive Committee members. When caught after denials and evasions, he blamed it all on his wife.

Tang should withdraw from the race or be ordered to do so. The bosses in Beijing know he has lost the public’s trust. He has used his long-suffering wife twice to take the heat off him.

Having had to own up to the fact that he had built an illegal structure at his home in the luxurious district of Kowloon Tong – as the second-ranking official in a government that does its best to eliminate such structures – he has no moral authority to lead Hong Kong, a fact that the public appears to have taken on board and collapsed his candidacy in the public mind.

Beijing’s carefully choreographed opera for Hong Kong’s quasi-election process has buckled so fast and so critically close to the end-game that it leaves Chinese officials scrambling. There are barely10 days left for the Hong Kong-Macau Affairs Office to quick-fix this crisis before the official deadline. The puppeteer has to pull the strings for the DAB, the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions and other allies to cast their nominations and votes to a revised script. But for which candidate?

The business lobby within the 1,200-member electoral college that selects the chief executive is stymied. The tycoons do not want CY Leung but voting for the third candidate Albert Ho of the Democratic Party is a waste as Beijing won’t even allow leading Democrats travel access into the mainland.

Beijing’s mantra of “preserving the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong” - which they adopted as the narrative from the British administration, is lacking a stage prop. The quasi-election is in real danger of degenerating into pure farce.

Regina Ip’s golden moment?

Regina Ip, infamous as security secretary for trying to ram through the flawed Article 23 Security Bill amendment in 2003 to align it with mainland-style criminalization of the freedom of assembly, expression, press freedom and guaranteed human rights, now leads the New People’s Party. She was elected to the Legislative Council in 2008. She declared her interest to run for chief executive before but withdrew when it became apparent that she could not secure the minimal 150 nominations.

Ip hopes the business lobby may swing behind her as the de-facto alternative to CY Leung. Despite a supportive response from her party caucus last night, she is still dithering, unsure if at this late stage she can secure the150 nominations or have time to pitch for votes from the Election Committee. She will need momentum which only a nod from Beijing can energize. She is viewed a ‘neutral’ candidate not beholden either to the business lobby or the leftists. She is well regarded by civil servants who fear the whip of CY Leung.

The nomination window for the selection process closes on 29 Feb and the Election Committee will vote on 25 March. If Ip does contest and is by default elected chief executive, she would have to resign from the party she founded. That is a stipulation of the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Michael Tien is available to take up the leadership of the New People’s Party.

Regina Ip in a press interview at the start of the race described both Henry Tang and Cy Leung as lacking the necessary "leadership qualities, competence and stamina" for the top job. She had received feelers from both camps for the position of chief secretary in the civil service. She declared she would not serve in an administration of either candidate.

Why not CY Leung?

The government’s leak of the 10-year old conflict of interest issue on the West Kowloon Arts Centre design selection apart, CY Leung has conducted a dignified campaign on his own. No one in the HK administration has explained why it was necessary to exhume this 10-year old case at this time. It could have just ignored the East Week report instead of responding to it in the middle of the race.

Leung is neither a stooge of the business lobby nor leftwing ideologues, although his strident anti-British sentiment is well known. Beijing has long identified him as a patriot in Hong Kong. He was given very senior responsibility in drafting the Basic Law and as convenor of the post-1997 Exco.

He knows how the Hong Kong government operates and why it has been dysfunctional for the last 14 years. He understands the festering issues left unresolved and sympathizes with the bottom rung of society. He knows the tricks of the property lobby only too well and they fear him for that. He has been consistently preferred by a wide margin on all the public polls.

Perhaps it is in Leung’s consistently independent streak that Beijing has misgivings. The minders at the HK-Macau Affairs Office and the Central Government Liaison Office are relaxed about the vacuity of candidate Tang. He just coasts along and is happy to follow any path shown. Leung has a mind of his own. He thinks. Such men are dangerous?