The election charade for Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive has entered its final week with the two candidates destined to be defeated still pretending that this is a real fight.
In practice, the two are simply trying to maintain and enhance their images with the public rather than expecting they can seriously challenge Beijing’s dictate to the pro-government members of the 1,200 strong Election Committee. The central government’s demand: That they vote for Carrie Lam-Yuet-ngor, former Chief Secretary for Administration rather than former Financial Secretary John Tsang Tsun-wah or retired judge Woo Kwok-hing. The ballot is on March 26.
It is bad enough as far as Hong Kong’s supposed internal self-government is concerned that the franchise is restricted to 1,200 mostly pro-government members of various narrowly based constituencies, mostly business and professional organizations and vastly over-represented groups such as Agriculture and Fisheries.
But this year the central government has repeatedly intervened to make it clear that those who expect its favors should not vote for Tsang or Woo despite the very senior positions they – Tsang in particular – have held for many years. Neither could be remotely judged to be radical, just not quite as automatically responsive to Beijing instructions as super-bureaucrat Chan.
Beijing earlier intervened quietly by telling Tsang Yok-sing, the former head of the main pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance (DAB) that it would not support his candidature – even though he has a history of leftist patriotism dating to the mid-1960s. Tsang Yok-sing is viewed as too popular and flexible compared with civil servants brought up under colonial rule and versed in obedience to the sovereign power.
The extent of Beijing’s pressure was also indicated by an about-face on the part of Hong Kong’s richest family, Li Ka-shing and his sons. The elder Li had earlier indicated that he would keep his preference a secret. He has a reputation for being less subservient than most of his fellow property tycoons and in the last election continued to back losing candidate Henry Tang after Beijing had switched horses when Tang was damaged by scandal over an illegal structure at his home.
But, according to the South China Morning Post, the chairman of the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) met with Li before the recent NPC meeting and persuaded him and his sons to vote for Lam. The Beijing NPC gathering then proved an ideal opportunity for the mainland to lean on other Hong Kong delegates not to vote for Tsang. Whether they do so remains to be seen. The ballot is supposedly secret – though some have their doubts.
Beijing is desperate to ensure as large a margin as possible for Lam. It would regard anything short of victory on the first ballot as a humiliating rejection of its chosen candidate. It is sure to get its way. However, its pressure will in practice make it harder than ever for Lam to appear as the choice of Hong Kong’s voters.
John Tsang leads her by a huge margin in opinion polls, not because he offers any radically different policies – he has none – but because he is better able to engage with the public and show apparently genuine sympathy for some of the many discontents in Hong Kong. Lam meanwhile has been tagged “CY 2.0,” a reference to unpopular outgoing Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung. She has drawn sniggers with her sudden conversion to wearing cheongsams, as though wearing “patriotic” dress would please Hong Kong people rather than Beijing. The only demographic in which she leads Tsang in opinion polls is women over 50.
Beijing has had uncommon bad luck with the candidates it has foisted off on Hong Kong, since the first, Tung Chee-hwa, became chief executive in 1997 with the transition of power from the UK to China. Tung was in effect forced to leave office in 2005 a year or so after a half million demonstrators took to the streets to protest attempts to push through a draconian security measure and because of the government’s mishandling of the SARS medical crisis.
Tung was followed by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who finished his term but was eventually convicted of misconduct in public office and accepting an advantage. He in turn was followed by CY Leung, who mishandled the so-called Umbrella Revolution of students and anti-Chinese protesters and other issues and announced he would step down rather than seek a second term in office.