Last month people were saying the oath-taking saga and Beijing’s intervention marked the beginning of the end of judicial independence and of Hong Kong as we know it (Nov. 30 post). Maybe that prediction was a little premature. Because this month, out of the blue, there came a sign that maybe Beijing is beginning to get the point after all.

The sign came in the form of a surprise announcement by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying (梁振英). Despite all indications to the contrary, he has decided not to seek a second term, due to begin next year. He cited family reasons. But if Beijing really wanted him to remain in office for another five years, from 2017 to 2020, it’s safe to assume those reasons would not have loomed so large.

Leung is the third and most divisive individual to occupy the post since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. All have been vetted and approved by Beijing before being endorsed by Hong Kong’s conservative Beijing-designed Election Committee. And all sooner-or-later provoked the same resistance while trying to implement Beijing’s plans for Hong Kong that have produced the current level of popular defiance here.

Among other things, that resistance has succeeded in delegitimizing all three men in a sequence that even Beijing must realize should not be allowed to continue indefinitely.

The first post-1997 Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), was ultimately obliged to resign mid-way through his second term in office, ostensibly for health reasons – none of which seem to have materialized. His term was marked most dramatically by the big half-million-person protest march on July 1, 2003. The issue then was his administration’s campaign, led by the then Secretary for Security, Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀), to push through the national political security legislation mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution.

Chief Executive number two was Donald Tsang Yam-kuen (曾蔭權) who is currently awaiting trial for misuse of office, the details of which were ferreted out and publicized by a critical press.

And now there is Leung Chung-ying whose consistent refusal to acknowledge the democracy movement’s concerns has had critics calling for his downfall from the day he was formally selected in March 2012. But by resigning when he did, Leung gave his critics one last keepsake to remember him by.

Leung announced his decision to stand down at a hastily-called press conference on Friday afternoon, Dec. 9 – just two days ahead of the Dec. 11 Chief Executive Election Committee election. This is the exercise that elects the electors who endorse Hong Kong’s Chief Executives.

He of course knew full well that democracy campaigners had made ABC (Anyone But CY) their chief slogan for the Election Committee election. They were using it to try and maximize support for like-minded Election Committee candidates from like-minded voters.

Democrats might have been responsible for finally pushing him from office. But in an instant, the timing of his announcement managed to deprive them of their main rallying cry and thus undercut the bargaining chips they hoped to secure for their minority position on a committee that is by design stacked against them.

Celebrate tonight, they said last Friday afternoon. We won’t have CY to kick around anymore. But double down again tomorrow because someone just as hardline will likely replace him.


Photo Credit: Tyrone Siu / Reuters / 達志影像

A supporter steps on a banner with a portrait of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during a rally against the government decision to commence separate legal proceedings against four legislators over oaths taken at a Legislative Council, in Hong Kong, China December 10, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RTX2UFWS

Election Committee basics

The committee sits astride a convoluted arrangement that is based on the occupation-based Functional Consistency categories. Their logic is probably fully grasped only by the returning officers who are tasked with managing the whole set-up. But the design was intended to guarantee safe pro-establishment majorities for any decision it is authorized to make and it has so far never failed to perform as intended.

Besides electing the Chief Executive Election Committee, the Functional Constituencies also elect about half of Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council.

The Election Committee has four sectors divided into 38 sub-sectors. The four main sectors that are not always identified in graphic presentations are: Sector One, business and finance; Sector Two, professions; Sector Three, labor, culture, and society; Political, political bodies both local and national.* The 38 Election Committee sub-sectors (with number of seats in parentheses):


This committee figured in the opposition to Beijing’s Aug. 31, 2014, political reform directive that was mandated as Beijing’s answer to democrats’ long-standing demand for universal suffrage elections. Beijing’s directive would have transformed this same Election Committee, unreformed, into a Nominating Committee, tasked with endorsing Beijing-vetted candidates ahead of the long-promised one-person, one-vote universal suffrage election for Chief Executive. This is the proposal that sparked the Occupy protest movement in 2014 and that pro-democracy legislators joined in vetoing last year.

The Election Committee thus remains in place to perform its duties as before. This will entail nominating approved candidates, which require the signatures of 150 Election Committee members per candidate. And finally selection. The votes of half the Committee’s members, 601, are the minimum required to produce a new Chief Executive. This exercise will take place next March. The 2017-2020 term begins on July First.


Photo Credit: Bobby Yip / Reuters / 達志影像

Security guards block pro-independence legislator-elect Baggio Leung from retaking his oath inside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China November 2, 2016.

Politicking for small-circle advantage

Back at the beginning, just after 1997 when democracy campaigners were still called liberals, they initially boycotted everything to do with this committee – dismissing it as a small-circle substitute for what real universal suffrage elections should be. By 2006, with that end still not in sight, campaigners decided to participate in order at least to make their voices heard in these inhospitable sectors.

In 2006, the Election Committee still had only 800 members. But despite their best efforts, democrats were able to win just 114 seats (or 134 counting some extra uncontested seats).

It was enough to nominate one of their own to stand as a Chief Executive candidate although he had no chance of winning. The candidate was Alan Leong Kah-kit (梁家傑) of the new Civic Party. When final votes were tallied for the Chief Executive prize a few months later, Leong received only 123 votes to Donald Tsang’s 649.

By the next 2012-2016 term, the Election Committee had been enlarged to 1,200 seats. Democrats succeeded in winning only 173 of these, plus some extra "uncontesteds." Enough to nominate candidate Albert Ho Chun-yan (何俊仁) of the Democratic Party. But on Chief Executive selection day, in March 2012, Ho received only 76 votes. The current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying won with 689 – and has been mocked ever since as Mr. 689 to advertise the minuscule size of his mandate.

Still they persist. But veterans say organizing for this year’s small-circle exercise was much easier than in 2006 and 2011. They credited the consciousness-raising 2014 Occupy protest movement and all that has happened since for the new energy –along with their number one “ABC” rallying cry – only to see it dissolve at the very last moment.

Their goal this time had been to win 300 of the 1,200 Election Committee seats. The aim was not to engage in the futile exercise of nominating one of their own. Instead, they wanted only to be able to use their voting power to block CY on selection day next March.

They worried about a sudden collapse of fighting spirt when he withdrew from the contest just two days before the December 11 poll. But another surprise was waiting: with or without CY, voters turned out for this small-circle election like never before. The turnout rate was almost double that for the last sub-sector election in 2011. Then it was only 27.6 percent. Last Sunday’s turnout was 46 percent.

Legislator elects Yau Wai-ching (L) and Baggio Leung react as they meet reporters inside Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China November 4, 2016.

Yet another post-occupy election: The 2016 Election Committee

Following a November nomination period, 1,539 candidates were validated. They vied to fill 733 seats in their respective sub-sectors. The remainder on the 1,200-member committee were uncontested.

Some 230,000 people who could prove they were associated with the sectors in question were deemed eligible to vote.

According to one estimate, the number of identifiable pro-democracy candidates was 364 – compared to 1,093 for pro-establishment and loyalist partisans.

On Election Day, voters received specialized ballots containing only the names of candidates vying for seats in each sub-sector. Each voter could vote for as many candidates as there were seats to fill in his/her sub-sector. They could vote for fewer but not more than that number.

Democrats were especially active in organizing coalitions and lists for the professionals Sector Two sub-sets where pro-democracy partisans are concentrated. Sub-sectors, where democrats have always done well, are the same few that are able to elect Functional Constituency representatives in the Legislative Council: legal, information technology, health services, education, and accounting, plus social welfare in Section Three.

What set their campaign apart this year was a more systematic effort than in 2006 and 2011, to organize groups and lists of likeminded candidates. Since voters could vote for the full number of committee members per sector, and could not easily remember the names of so many people, crib-sheets were provided and allowed for reference while voting.

The lists were also well-organized with the seven pro-democracy Functional Constituency legislators organizing themselves initially into the Professionals Guild the better to coordinate campaign work, mobilize candidates, and encourage voters to come out on Election Day. The Professionals Guild overlapped with Democrats300+ that also encouraged participation among pro-democracy candidates and voters.

That overall effort reinforced groups and lists from several sub-sectors. One successful list, Academics in Support of Democracy, was headed by the two founders of the original Occupy Central movement. They are still routinely vilified by the pro-Beijing loyalist media for starting that campaign. But the list of candidates organized by Professors Benny Tai (戴耀廷) (HKU) and Chan Kin-man (陳健民) (CUHK) took all 30 seats in the higher education sub-sector.

Ditto the legal professionals’ effort where pro-democracy candidates also swept the 30-seat sector. Their joint campaign lists, ProDem21 and PanDem9, added up to 30 candidates – one for each of the 30 sub-sector seats.

The 21 were independent non-party-affiliated legal professionals. Their pan-dem colleagues belonged to various political parties including the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho, and the Civic Party’s Alan Leong. The latter stood as a Chief Executive candidate in 2006, as did Albert Ho in 2011.

The pro-Beijing press demanded that not a single advocate of Hong Kong independence be allowed onto the Election Committee. But at least one made the grade. Chan Chak-to, who had slipped under his returning officer’s radar and stood as a candidate in the Legislative Council election (Kowloon East), did it again. He joined the democrats’ IT Vision group and made up for his loss last September by winning an Election Committee seat in the information technology sub-sector on December 11.

In 2011, only one sub-sector won a full complement of democrats. Last Sunday six sub-sectors elected only democratic candidates to fill their seats.

The Election Committee’s overall design nevertheless prevailed and as always guaranteed the outcome. Pro-establishment candidates: loyalist politicians, business tycoons, etc., account for some 868 seats on the new 2016 Election Committee. More than enough to nominate at least three candidates at 150 nomination signatures per candidate, and anoint one of their number as Chief Executive with the votes of 601 committee-member electors. The pro-democracy total: 326 seats.

Re-elected lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung throws a torn placard while taking oath at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

What to do with those 326 votes?

The discussion turned immediately to how best to use the small power base they’ve built within the committee of electors. Before December 9, democrats were united around a single goal: to deny CY Leung a second term.

Now they can be king makers but without a king of their own. They are definitely disinclined to join the contest themselves. They see it as a waste of scare resources and a futile gesture they no longer need to make in order to publicize their arguments for universal suffrage election

So they’re contemplating the next worst possibility after CY, and waiting for other candidates to oppose – and vote strategically against. There are four potentials with no indication as yet that Beijing has given the nod to any one of them.

For now, discussion is focusing inward on democrats themselves, on how they can overcome their differences to make an effective impact and what demands they can agree to make. Especially they need to agree on what questions to ask the candidates in order to gauge how they will respond to key democratic concerns.

Chief among the concerns is how the candidates perceive their role in relation to Beijing and all the pending political changes that seem to be threatening Hong Kong’s way of political life.

For example, where do the candidates stand on Article 23 national security legislation? It’s been resting on the shelf since 2003. Do they anticipate reintroducing it during the coming five-year term as loyalists are now demanding in response to localist demands for Hong Kong independence?

This would be a question directed especially to Regina Ip, one of the potential candidates, who seems not to have forgotten that most dramatic failure of her career. It led to her resignation from the civil service and transformation into a directly-elected Legislative Councilor. But her inclinations are still conservative, loyalist, pro-establishment.

Where do the candidates stand on political reform? And do they understand that reviving Beijing’s Aug. 31, 2014 directive, as Beijing seems to expect, will be a non-starter?

This would be a question directed especially to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), another potential candidate. She played a hardline role as CY Leung’s loyal deputy throughout his five-year term and seemed disinclined to give an inch during the long 2014-15 political reform controversy.

Will there be a forthright appraisal of the Hong Kong booksellers’ cross-border encounter with mainland justice? And will the next Chief Executive agree to abandon CY Leung’s crusade against the newly-elected localist Legislative Councilors? He’s seeking to remove four more for taking insincere oaths during the October 12 swearing-in ceremony.

These would be questions for all the candidates but maybe especially for retired judge Woo Kwok-hing (胡國興) whose instincts and inclinations seem liberal but perhaps are not. He threw his hat in the ring as a potential candidate several weeks ago.

Will the candidates try to convince Beijing of the need to re-think its one-size-fits-all "mainland" political mindset in dealing with Hong Kong? Will they speak to Beijing on Hong Kong’s behalf? Or do they intend to follow in CY Leung’s footsteps and present themselves as Beijing’s resident representative here?

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.

Editor: Edward White