Economy, Talking Point

This time it wasn’t dull

China mulls the consequences of Hong Kong’s erratic election

This time it wasn’t dull

The new boss: CY Leung won last Sunday’s election to lead Hong Kong

Stanley Ho, the casino mogul, once said that he would quit Hong Kong if CY Leung became Hong Kong’s chief executive.

According to Ho, Leung “hates the rich” and the tycoon may not be the only one to think so. The South China Morning Post speculated this month that, despite urging from Chinese vice president Xi Jinping, Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, also refused to vote for Leung in last Sunday’s election. The businessman told reporters he would vote for Leung’s rival, Henry Tang.

Both the billionaires backed the losing candidate. That’s because an election committee of 1,193 members has chosen Leung as Hong Kong’s next leader. He secured 689 votes, beating both Tang and Albert Ho, a pro-democracy campaigner who ran with no hope of winning but wanted to highlight the inadequacies of the electoral system.

Hong Kong’s election this year has been significant, standing out as the most rancorous, divisive and scandal-plagued leadership battle to date.

And for the first time since 1997, Beijing seems to have been wrongfooted by events, as its succession plans for the top job in Hong Kong blew up.

Many think the ramifications could be far-reaching. Some suggest that come the next election in 2017, China’s leaders may decide the current system is more trouble than its worth, and endorse a more democratic ballot.

Others demur, predicting a redoubling of Beijing’s efforts to stage-manage results of the next leadership vote.

A quick recap…

Until recently, Tang was the shoo-in candidate, as well as Beijing’s choice, for the top job. In fact, Ming Pao Daily reckons that Leung was seen as a makeweight, there only to provide a veneer of competition.

Certainly Tang seems to have taken the chief executive job for granted, failing initially to elaborate on his policies or show much enthusiasm for political debate.

That didn’t impress the wider public. The beneficiary of inherited wealth (the son of a Shanghai industrialist), Tang was soon being portrayed as lazy – and likened to a pig by the more vitriolic elements of the local press.

For the people of Hong Kong, Leung was easier to identify with. A policeman’s son, he found his feet in the property business before making the transition into politics (the BBC calls him a “self-made businessman”). Until last year, he was also convener of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, its cabinet.

Yet Leung is not without critics, especially those who query his rapid rise within the leadership ranks and suspect that he is a closet member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Although he has firmly denied the accusations, Leung’s decision to visit the Liaison Office of Hong Kong & Macau Affairs (China’s de facto ‘embassy’ in Hong Kong) the day after his election (he doesn’t take office until July 1) was also much remarked upon.

The grumble was that it proved Leung cared more about showing his gratitude to Beijing than listening to the concerns of local people.

That leads to questions of whether Leung might have duped the wider public into believing that he is more reform-minded than he really is. Tang alluded to this during campaigning, with the suggestion that Leung had called for the use of riot police and tear gas during a huge public demonstration against proposed anti-subversion laws in 2003.

Back to the animal metaphors currently doing the rounds in the Hong Kong press: the Apple Daily has been casting Leung as wolf to Tang’s pig, implying a cunning and untrustworthy individual.

Why did Tang’s campaign start to unravel?

Tang stumbled from one gaffe to another, admitting adultery, apologising for an illegally-built basement and refusing to comment on rumours about an illegitimate child (see WiC140).

Public support dwindled with each new story. Tang’s approval rating dipped below 20% after he called a press conference in which he appeared to blame his wife for the illegal basement. It was desperately ill-judged, given that his wife had publicly stood by him even as he admitted “straying” in his marriage earlier in the campaign.

Of course, public opinion shouldn’t really matter in a contest in which a tiny election committee takes its political cues from Beijing in deciding the winner.

But a week before the election, the afore-mentioned Liaison Office seems to have started to urge the electors to switch to Leung instead.

Ditching Tang at the last minute suggests they were worried that they would be seen as foisting him on Hong Kong. Certainly, the bolder newspaper editorials were predicting that half a million Hongkongers could march if Tang triumphed – much as they did in 2003 to protest against the anti-subversion laws (after which Beijing backed down, withdrawing the bill). Hence, the shift of official support to Leung. Taiwan’s Central News Agency saw China’s decision to switch support as a signal that Beijing wants to stay on the right side of public opinion, even in races that it controls.

Tang lost, but the public still unhappy, it seems?

In truth, only 1,200 people out of Hong Kong’s 7 million population got to vote on Sunday, with most of the electoral committee selected as pro-Beijing political and business elites.

No wonder, then, that China’s internet users seem to have been less interested in the outcome of Hong Kong’s leadership election than the national elections in Taiwan (see WiC135) or even the more recent villager vote in Wukan in Guangdong (see last week’s issue).

“You Hong Kong people are getting poorer and poorer. Chinese people are becoming richer… Hong Kong’s election isn’t even a real one. Save your time and energy to make a little money,” was one dismissive comment online.

Still, Leung versus Tang had more of the look-and-feel of a democratic contest than the previous leadership run-offs in Hong Kong. At least Tang and Leung participated in televised debates and campaigned among the general public – in spite of the fact that the public couldn’t vote for the final outcome.

“Hong Kong for the first time underwent a political struggle with ups and downs,” says Caixin magazine, adding that this month’s election could serve as a dry run for direct elections in Hong Kong five years from now.

So Hong Kong will be able to elect its leader?

The Beijing authorities indicated back in 2007 that Hong Kong would have universal suffrage for the chief executive election of 2017, and for a local parliamentary assembly by 2020, although details of the selection process have not been decided.

Many are sceptical, believing that mainland policymakers will find a way to retain control, possibly by vetting candidates on the ballot.

Still, with China’s reformist faction in the ascendant (see issues 140 and 142), others think that Hong Kong’s next leader might be selected by a wider electorate. Leung and Tang both endorsed the idea of a universal franchise for the next election during their final debate.

China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, offered hints as well, suggesting at the National People’s Congress this month that “[Hong Kong] should elect a chief executive who is supported by the majority of the people.” Some see this as a declaration of sorts. After all, if handled right, Hong Kong could serve as a testing ground for China’s own (longer term) political reforms.

“People in mainland China are urging for political changes, so they look up to Taiwan and Hong Kong for ‘live demonstrations,’” Robert Chung, head of the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme, told TIME. “Success in Hong Kong’s democratisation would also help China to move forward.”

Alongside the optimism there has also been gloomier coverage of the conservative instincts of the Chinese political elite.

The University of Hong Kong last week ran a mock election to gauge how the people might have voted. But the online poll was soon subverted by what organisers called “high-level cyber attacks”, leading to the inevitable speculation about interference from across the border. (The poll was soon back online, and saw half of the nearly 223,000 respondents cast blank ballots – a situation that, had it happened in the real election, would have seen the need for a fresh poll in May involving new candidates.)

Ah Lo, one of those protesting against limited voting rights in Hong Kong, told the New York Times that he doubted China would ever allow the city universal suffrage.

“Beijing first promised us one person, one vote in 2007, then in 2012,” he said. “Now they say we may have it in 2017. I don’t think they’ll ever allow democracy here.”

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