Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Hong Kong: China’s ‘hot potato’ election [Straits Times]


Three weeks to go for the race for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive position: Since 1997, we’ve seen three elections pass. Is China going to lose more sleep over the former British colony it ‘pledged’ to not change for fifty years? Can they resist interceding with the ‘one country, two systems’ pledge? Will it be able/or want to draw lessons from Hong Kong’s democracy process to its own democratising effort?

For one, it may not see a winning candidate that does not have its blessings. An expanded election committee (from 800 to 1200) and an already increasingly active citizenry suggest locals may very well take to the streets again if they see high-handedness from Beijing (especially so in the wake of rising social tension between Hong Kongers and mainlanders). The longer-term view of the 2017 elections having ordinary Hong Kongers vote for the first time also requires attention.

– – –

China’s ‘hot potato’ election
Scandal-hit candidates and public sentiment put Beijing in a dilemma
by Chin Cheong
Source – Straits Times, published March 3, 2012

China's 'hot potato' election -- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

IT USED to be that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE) election was not something Beijing needed to lose much sleep over. No longer.

There had been three such elections since 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty after more than 140 years as a British colony.

Each time, the candidate who received Beijing’s ‘blessings’ was later picked to become the city’s top leader by an 800-member Election Committee (EC).

The one change Beijing made for the coming election on March 25 was to approve two candidates – former chief secretary Henry Tang and former government adviser Leung Chun Ying – a move intended to introduce an element of competition in the race.

The election is probably the last time that it will be limited to a select few. The next one in 2017 may see Hong Kongers finally able to vote for the first time.

Still, Mr Tang, whose family enjoys close ties with some top Chinese leaders, was widely considered the favoured son. That was until a series of scandals about his alleged extramarital love affairs erupted in the media. Media reports also exposed the illegal construction of what was described as an ‘underground palace’ at one of the Tangs’ residences.

Mr Leung, meanwhile, was forced to defend himself against charges of ‘conflict of interest’ in a design competition that took place 10 years ago.

Worse, incumbent leader Donald Tsang was himself tainted by scandal, with local media reporting last week that he accepted favours from tycoons. Though he maintains he did not commit any wrongdoing, a contrite Mr Tsang apologised to the people on Thursday for shaking public trust.

Mr Tang, who ignored calls for him to withdraw his candidacy, has the numbers on his side.

He received the most number of nominations – 390 – from the EC, which means he is assured of the same number of votes, come March 25. His nearest rival, Mr Leung, has 305 nominations and the third candidate, Mr Albert Ho of the Democrat Party, has 188.

The EC, which has been expanded to 1,200 members for this election, still has 317 uncommitted members, who are expected to take the cue from Beijing.

On paper, at least, Mr Tang, who once held the finance portfolio, needs only another 211 votes to give him the minimum 601 required to clinch the top post.

His ‘bank’ of strong supporters ranges from bankers and financiers to industrialists and property tycoons who are all well-represented in the EC. It also includes several former senior government officials, among them Mr Joseph Yam, the former chief of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

By comparison, Mr Leung has far fewer heavyweight supporters, the exception being Mr Tung Chee Hwa, a shipping tycoon who became Hong Kong’s first CE.

As the countdown to the election draws nearer, the scandals that have tarred the two main CE candidates and Mr Tsang as well as public disaffection threaten to turn the CE election into a farce – and Beijing’s nightmare.

Beijing knows that installing a tainted candidate as Hong Kong’s top leader will have implications not only for the future government but also for Beijing. Ordinary Hong Kongers, who do not get to choose their leader, have vowed to vote with their feet. At the same time, the rivalry between Mr Tang and Mr Leung, both of them establishment candidates, has bitterly divided the pro-establishment camp. The next administration will have its work cut out to heal the rift.

Political observers believe that up to now, Mr Tang, despite consistently lagging behind Mr Leung in popularity polls, remains Beijing’s choice. However, Beijing will be loath to see a repeat of July 1, 2003, when half a million people took to the streets in protest against a proposed national security law that was subsequently shelved. Many have threatened to take to the streets if Mr Tang becomes CE.

But backing Mr Leung, often called by his initials C.Y., does not make it any easier for Beijing. He may be the people’s favourite, but he is not acceptable to the pro-Tang bloc in the EC. The latter has a motto: ABC, or Anyone But C.Y.

The name of Mr Jasper Tsang, Hong Kong’s legislative chief, came up last week but on Monday, he said he was not taking part in the race. The reason he gave was a lack of time. Another reason may have to do with his alleged communist affiliation. Mr Tsang, who founded and led the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong from 1992 to 2003, is believed to be a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member. While he has never acknowledged his status, he also has never bothered to deny it.

Beijing could have weighed the implications of putting a CCP man in charge of Hong Kong before deciding against it.

For one thing, even having Mr Tsang in the race could raise suspicions that the party he had led for more than a decade was no more than a front for the CCP.

For another, putting a CCP man in charge of Hong Kong would be detrimental to Beijing’s much touted ‘one country, two systems’ model of governing its special administrative region.

Clearly, Beijing does not want to have to tackle any new problems that the ‘Tsang option’ might create.

As for the Tang-Leung dilemma, if Beijing refrains from taking any pro-active steps, victory for Mr Tang is guaranteed. So is public unhappiness, which would spill into the streets. If Beijing decides to throw its support behind Mr Leung instead, it will need to shore up his future administration by getting members of the pro-democracy camp to rally behind him to counter any pressure from the anti-Leung bloc.

It might already have taken a step in this direction. Mr Ho said that Beijing representatives had approached him to secure his party’s cooperation in a future administration, presumably to be led by Mr Leung.

There are three weeks to go before the CE election. Will it eventually be Mr Tang or Mr Leung? Beijing will surely want to sleep on it.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Democracy, Greater China, Hong Kong, Human Rights, Influence, Mapping Feelings, Media, Nationalism, Peaceful Development, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Reform, Social, Soft Power, Straits Times, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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