Hong Kong's Non-Election

Hong Kong’s sometimes-brusque residents have dubbed the upcoming election for chief executive as a choice between a pig and a wolf. The pig in this case is Henry Tang Ying-yen the former chief secretary for administration, who they say somewhat unkindly has the characteristics of a pig, stupid but harmless. His rival for the post of chief executive is Leung Chun-ying, said to have the cunning and ruthlessness of a wolf.

The public is not going to decide the winner of this so-called election. That will be decided in March 2012 by the Election Committee, a strong group mostly consisting of pro-government dignitaries and representatives of commercial interests. But Beijing is thought likely to have to take public opinion into account when it quietly indicates its preferences to certain members of the Election Committee. That could turn out to be a problem for Tang, who has all along been considered the front runner. Now that the two have officially declared, started making campaign speeches and parading their prominent supporters before the cameras it is evident that although Leung was relatively little known until recently, he is proving to be a much more articulate figure whose promises of change sound more convincing than those of Tang whose achievements in office as the number two in the government have been at best underwhelming.

Tang started with many advantages, not least being the son of a Shanghainese textile billionaire who became a member of Beijing’s rubber-stamp group of worthies known as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Although his own business career appeared to consist of little more than selling textile quota earned by the previous generation he was rapidly elevated once he entered the government in 2002. His has particular expertise in fine wines and regarded as an easy going individual with a nice smile and certain charm, particularly for the ladies.

Indeed, one mark against him in the popular mind is the recent revelation of an affair. This was widely rumored to be with a colleague who was subsequently promoted to a job for which she did not appear well qualified. One affair is probably not enough to sink his chances but rumors persist of more. In a column for the South China Morning Post a former senior civil servant wrote that “there have been rumors for many years that a pre-marriage relationship by Tang produced a son”. When challenged on camera, Tang has declined to answer.

There is no doubt, however, that Tang enjoys the support of most of the big name business figures and organization such as the General Chamber of Commerce, now headed by a former civil servant female colleague, and the likes of David Li Kwok-po, the representative of the banking community and scion of one of Hong Kong’s oldest families. In 2008 Li, who heads the Bank of East Asia, paid $8 million damages to the US Securities and Exchange Commission to settle allegations of insider trading in shares of Dow Jones, of which he was a director, at the time of the Murdoch takeover bid.

Tang also has the backing of high profile entrepreneur Allan Zeman, the government’s favorite expatriate. Zeman took up the animal themes by describing Tang as a panda who he would like to hug. This caused some wry amusement in the gay community where pandas are chubby Chinese gays, though Tang is neither chubby nor gay.

Leung’s skeleton is the widespread belief that he has long been a member of the Communist party. On announcing his candidacy he formally denied this adding that he had never been approached to join. Skeptics however suggest he could be a member of one of the Communist front organization parties. It might be thought that party membership would be no bad thing given that Beijing might prefer to trust a long-time party member than the likes of Tang. However, Beijing now often puts family connections above other loyalties while Hong Kong people as a whole tend to distrust the party, which does not officially exist in Hong Kong and whose membership is secret.

Leung is a bright but ambitious figure from a modest background who rose quickly as a property surveyor, becoming local head of Jones Lang & Wootton at age 30 before starting his own firm. Until recently he was convenor of the unofficial (non-government) members of the Executive Council, a body which in principle is supposed to make decisions on government policies but in practice is a mix of talk shop and rubber stamp.

Leung is trying hard to distance himself from government policies and from the property developer interests with which he was associated as a leading surveyor. Hence a push to revive government housing is part of his platform. It remains to be seen what other new policies he proposes. Although never in government he appears well briefed on many issues and has the advantage of not being responsible for the government failures in such areas as housing and the environment.

Independent observers might think that Hong Kong needs change to meet challenges from competing cities, be they Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore or Sydney and address the issues raised by a rapidly aging society. However with the business elite and the Communist party stuck in a comfort zone where change is viewed as upsetting if not positively dangerous, the Leung message of change, however opportunistic, may be too much. There is nothing wrong with the status quo, they insist. The dumb pig is scant threat to their cozy situations, cartels and oligopolies.

Beijing may have reason to worry that Tang, representative of old wealth and ongoing privilege, will incite more of the so-far mild social unrest evident in Hong Kong in recent times. Nor can Tang escape the remarkably indiscreet criticism leveled at the administration of current chief executive Donald Tsang a few months ago by the head of Beijing’s representative office in the territory. While the Beijing leadership leans towards Tang, factions within the party favor Leung. Neither has especially strong connections in the capital, which will continue to put Hong Kong at a disadvantage when dealing with national interests or protecting its own.

So though this is by no stretch of the imagination a free and fair election, both candidates are approved by Beijing and neither candidate is particularly impressive, a strong public preference for Leung could make this a much closer contest than originally envisaged and make the election seem more real than is actually the case.