Hong Kong Election: Beijing Decides, Hong Kong Approves

Hong Kong Election: Beijing Decides, Hong Kong Approves
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

Beijing must feel Carrie Lam is their best hope for reducing tensions and getting the job done as they proceed with all their cross-border interventions.

Actually, it was supposed to be the other way around. At first glance and for some time after the Basic Law was unveiled, the general assumption was that Hong Kong would be selecting its Chief Executives and Beijing would give them an official stamp of approval. That’s what the Basic Law, Article 45 suggested. It says that Hong Kong’s Chief Executives “shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.”

It was this same Article 45 that had inspired Hong Kong’s democracy movement for decades. Article 45 also says that the “ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage.” So it seemed not unreasonable to assume that the choice would be Hong Kong’s to make, through ever more democratic means, and Beijing would go on approving the choice in some sort of formal way.

The first post-1997 Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), was obviously a special case coming as his selection did in the midst of so historic a transfer from the British to Beijing. After a few years, however, Hong Kongers could see that the interim purpose-built Election Committee, tasked with doing the selecting until universal suffrage phased in, didn’t really make any such decision on its own.

But it was only after the August 31, 2014 political reform directive revealed Beijing’s vision for what sort of universal suffrage election Hong Kong was going to be allowed forever more that the point was finally driven home.

The old-fashioned purpose-built Election Committee was to become a permanent Nominating Committee, with Hong Kong voters rubber-stamping officially-approved candidates. Hence the June 2015 Legislative Council veto of Beijing’s reform design that was to have been in place by now, 2017. Since it’s not, the unreformed arrangement is being recycled to select a Chief Executive for the coming 2017-22 term. Selection Day is March 26.

The Election Committee itself was selected in its convoluted small-circle way last December (Dec. 14 post). Politicking began in earnest soon after.

Four hopefuls threw their hats in the ring or indicated they were thinking about it: a retired judge, Woo Kwok-hing (胡國興); Legislative Councilor Regina Ip Lau Shu-yee (葉劉淑儀) ; Hong Kong’s then Financial Secretary, John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華); and Hong Kong’s then Chief Secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngo (林鄭月娥).

Contenders must collect the nomination signatures of 150 Election Committee members in order to become formal candidates. To win, one of them must receive the votes of half the election committee, which is fixed at 601. There are officially 1,200 committee members but due to the inevitable overlapping positions, the committee actually has only 1,194 people.

The original four remain the leading contenders. Once their decisions to contest were final, both John Tsang and Carrie Lam resigned from their Hong Kong government positions.

Another candidate was “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄). As usual, he wanted to do it his way and decided to run via the online civil referendum route (Jan. 20 post). Leung had set himself the goal of receiving its required 30,000-plus online nominations before declaring himself a formal candidate. But technical difficulites temporarily shut down the site and he failed to achieve his target number of nominations by the deadline. He has just withdrawn from the race.

Out of the shadows

Beijing’s direct intervention in this process is the second recent development that suggests official patience with Hong Kong is running thin. The first was the sobering Nov. 7, 2016, interpretation of Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking and the subsequent maneuvers to disqualify retroactively six newly-elected Legislative Councilors for having misspoken while taking their oaths on October 12 last year (Feb. 16 post).

Beijing officials have obviously decided they no longer need to keep up appearances about non-intervention in Hong Kong affairs. Past suspicions in this regard were typically met with bland denials. But at least pretensions were maintained – presumably in deference to the Basic Law which also addresses the matter of mainland interference.

Article 22 says that, “No department of the Central People’s Government – may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”

As politicking has picked up ahead of Selection Day, however, Beijing officials have thrown caution to the winds. They‘ve gone so far as to remind Hong Kong that Beijing’s right to appoint is substantive and they now mean to exercise it without trying to pretend they’re not.

They’ve made their choice and it is career civil servant Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. For the past five years she has served as Hong Kong’s Number Two or Chief Secretary for Administration, in the government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英).

Why now?

The provocation for such forthright intervention seems to be not just Hong Kong’s new flirtation with independence that Beijing is determined to eradicate, but also the larger underlying climate of popular disaffection. Or more specifically, the scuttling of Beijing’s grand plan for introducing Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election.

It was to have been Beijing’s anniversary gift, the fulfillment of Article 45’s long-delayed promise and a fitting climax to proclaim the success of Hong Kong’s first 20 years under Chinese rule.

Instead, dissenting Hong Kong mustered its forces and rejected the gift. It is said – by those who claim to be in the know – that Beijing officials remain adamant. If Hong Kong is ever to enjoy a universal suffrage election, it will only be in the form of the August 31, 2014 electoral reform design.

That or nothing, which would mean officials vetting the candidates and Hong Kongers legitimizing the results via one-person, one-vote universal suffrage elections. The 8.31 design would simulate mainland elections, widespread today at the local level, where voters rubber-stamp the candidates who are first approved by local communist party officials.

It would also mean one more step in Hong Kong’s cross-border assimilation. But with the 8.31 mandate, like Article 23 national security legislation, and the national education curriculum all languishing on the shelf, Beijing must have made the sudden decision to try and regain lost ground by sacrificing the much disliked Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying.

All hints and suggestions had been that he was looking forward to a second term. Not long after his sudden announcement to the contrary last December, all signs suddenly shifted toward his second in command. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam.

Why her?

As Leung’s loyal deputy, she provided the hands-on driving force that guided the government’s electoral reform promotion campaign from the start of public consultations in late 2013, through the 2014 Occupy/Umbrella protest it provoked, and on to its defeat in June 2015. The government’s reform plan was drafted to Beijing’s 8.31 design specifications.

That she didn’t succeed in winning public approval for the plan seems to be less important than her resolve. She never betrayed the slightest reservation about the task she had been assigned, or an understanding of the reasons for its rejection.

Her campaign continued with its catchy “pocket it first” slogan – without ever addressing the most basic question it raised. Pocket it first and then what? What might Hong Kongers look forward to once they had accepted her offer based on the 8.31 design?

Only at the very end of the campaign, just ahead of the Legislative Council’s vote to veto, did a Beijing official speaking to legislators in Shenzhen acknowledge that there was nothing else to look forward to: 8.31 was Beijing answer to Article 45’s promise of universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

Still, after five years of Leung Chun-ying, officials must have calculated that she would be a calming influence: just as loyal but without his hardline pro-Beijing political persona. A devout Catholic, a life long civil servant, schooled in the old colonial and new mainland traditions of loyalty to the crown and obedience to Beijing, seemingly devoid of all political foresight, preferences, or pretensions – Beijing must feel she is their last best hope for reducing tensions and getting the job done as they proceed with all their cross-border interventions.

Most recently, she has been overseeing plans for the official gala 20th anniversary celebrations to culminate on July 1. She’s also doing the same for Beijing’s latest effort to remind Hong Kong of its Chinese roots with a new specially-built HK$ 3.5 billion facility that will display exhibits on loan from the Palace Museum in Beijing. Two gigantic murals advertising the project in Hong Kong’s downtown central subway station are titled “In Touch with the Palace Museum.”

Beijing’s candidate

Local Beijing-friendly opinion leaders are now out and about, explaining the surprise decision to relevant Election Committee sectors responsible for casting the March 26 vote. She is Beijing’s way of acknowledging local dissent, a kind of peace-making gesture that can be extended to unhappy Hong Kongers – without actually addressing the reasons for their discontent.

In any case, Beijing officialdom and Hong Kong loyalists are going all out to promote Carrie Lam. The decision to anoint her was made at a Political Bureau Standing Committee meeting in Beijing on December 25. But the build-up headlines and full-page spreads in Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press began as soon as she announced she was rethinking her decision not to become a candidate. And this she did within hours of CY Leung’s December 9 announcement that he would not seek a second term.

Still, the routines were initially standard. So were the initial complaints about Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office moving into its familiar behind-the-scenes promoter’s role. At first it was just telephone calls, from Liaison Office personnel to Election Committee members, suggesting they vote for one candidate and not another (Ming Pao, Jan. 26).

Michael Tien (田北屒) from the pro-establishment New People’s Party complained about interference from an “invisible hand” or phone calls in favor of one candidate from a source he chose not to name. He said the Chief Executive selection race was being distorted, “pushed out of shape.” All standard polite euphemisms for the Liaison Office, putting its thumb on the scale … in this case to the disadvantage of his party’s candidate Regina Ip, although he didn’t actually say so (SCMP, Jan. 17).

But loyalists themselves soon dropped their pretenses. Why shouldn’t the Liaison Office lobby for candidates, asked pro-Beijing stalwart Elsie Leung (梁愛詩). Hong Kong has free speech. They’re exercising their rights just like everyone else. Anyone can lobby, she said, as long as there‘s no coercion or advantages on offer (RTHK, Feb. 13; SCMP, Feb. 14).

Carrie Lam’s long years as a Hong Kong civil servant, learning to respond without answering, served her well in this case. She said she didn’t actually know if lobbying by Beijing is illegal. But she thinks the Basic Law’s Article 22 against mainland interference is more like a constitutional principle than a specific ordinance that’s meant to be obeyed (Ming Pao, SCMP, Feb. 11).

She has grasped the nature of the Basic Law perfectly. No wonder democracy activists have created so much trouble: they took the Basic Law literally. They thought it meant what it said. She knows better. It’s the spirit of the law that counts.

She also said she would not ask the Liaison Office to stop its lobbying on her behalf. If Election Committee members didn’t want phone calls from the Liaison Office they could tell the Liaison Office.

And why shouldn’t the Liaison Office campaign on her behalf when the third ranking official in the national party hierarchy flew all the way from Beijing to do just that? Zhang Dejiang (張德江) is also Chairman of the National People Congress and heads the party’s leading coordination group that oversees Hong Kong and Macau affairs.

In early February, he traveled to Hong Kong’s cross-border sister city, Shenzhen, where he met with key Election Committee members. These included Hong Kong business leaders and some of Hong Kong’s 36-member delegation to the National People’s Congress.

Zhang was accompanied during the February 5 and 6 meetings by Sun Chun-lan (孫春蘭) who heads the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department. She is also deputy leader of the central coordination group for Hong Kong and Macau affairs.

Zhang’s message was that national leaders decided to back Carrie Lam for Chief Executive at their December 25 Politburo meeting. The decision was unanimous and reports suggest he was trying to counter speculation about Beijing’s factional power-struggles carrying over to further complicate Hong Kong’s Chief Execution selection process (SingTao, Standard, Feb. 7; SCMP, Feb. 7, 9).

Lam’s strongest competitor is John Tsang and unconfirmed stories abound that Liaison Office personal have tried their best to persuade him to drop out of the race. He was even allegedly offered a plum banking post … all to no avail. He refuses to acknowledge the stories saying different people say different things … all rumors and speculation (TVB Straight Talk, Feb. 14).

And then there is the widely circulated story that Beijing would not appoint him should he actually win the Election Committee vote on March 26. He says Beijing must trust him or they wouldn’t have allowed him to serve as Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary from 2007 until he resigned in January (SCMP, Feb. 17).

One of the Beijing officials who allegedly tried to persuade John Tsang, late last year, was Wang Guangya (王光亞), director of the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing. In mid-February, he followed on the heels of Zhang Dejiang and met with other Hong Kong leaders in Shenzhen.

Wang repeated the message about Carrie Lam being Beijing’s choice. He explained that of the several qualities Beijing wants to see in Hong Kong’s Chief Executives, trust is the most important. The person must enjoy Beijing’s trust.

He also said the Chief Executive election was part of the struggle over jurisdiction here. Beijing sees the Chief Executive election as part of its ongoing effort to safeguard its authority and sovereign right to rule (SCMP, Feb. 18).

And just in case anyone missed the point, Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) repeated it. The occasion was a closed-door meeting on February 21, attended by advisors to his think-tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation. Some are Election Committee members.

Tung reportedly told the gathering that John Tsang could not compare with Carrie Lam in ability and suggested that Beijing might not appoint Tsang if he won the Election Committee vote (SingTao, Standard, Feb. 23).

Carrie Lam had said earlier that Tung Chee-hwa helped persuade her to join the race. She also said when explaining her candidacy at a closed-door session of media executives on January 20, that she had decided to run in order to prevent a “constitutional crisis” – in case a candidate won the Election Committee’s vote that Beijing could not accept (SCMP, Standard, Jan. 23).

At the time her reference to a constitutional crisis sounded unnecessarily melodramatic (Apple, Jan. 22, 23). But apparently this is the base line argument Beijing is using in favor of Lam against Tsang.

Why they don’t trust him and won’t appoint him even if he’s the victor on March 26 has yet to be revealed. Perhaps it’s just because she has been in a position to prove her loyalty many times over, whereas Tsang has yet to be tested in that particular respect. And Beijing isn’t in the mood for taking chances – given its perception of Hong Kong’s resistance to its plans for cross-border integration as a threat to the integrity of unitary one-party rule.

True to form, Carrie Lam for her part is still reflecting the spirit of non-intervention, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She insists this selection is open and fair. But unlike the non-intervention clause in the Basic Law, there are specific rules here that deal with electioneering and are supposed to be obeyed.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption recently issued a booklet to remind everyone involved in this election that offering an advantage to someone to stand for election or to stand down is an offense under Hong Kong law.*

There are also 30 lawyers representing the Election Committee’s legal sector. All are democrats. These hold a total of about 325 seats among the 1,194 Election Committee members and are strategizing in order to use their votes to best advantage. But however limited their political strength may be, the lawyers know how to make a point.

They have drafted a statement reminding all concerned that any attempt to exert pressure on Election Committee members to the harm or benefit of any candidate is not just deplorable. It may also amount to inciting the commission of a criminal offense under Hong Kong law. Besides, say the lawyers, it also betrays a callous disregard for the principle and practice of free and fair elections (SCMP, Feb. 24).

Curiously, and completely out of character, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspapers did not cover the Shenzhen visits of Zhang Dejaing and Wang Guangya. Some loyalists also professed disbelief that Tung Chee-hwa would make any such threats about John Tsang not being appointed by Beijing even if he is elected on March 26.

Perhaps this reflects some residual deference to the principle of non-intervention after all … while Beijing struggles to avoid what is euphemistically referred to as the embarrassment of being presented with a candidate-elect that it has worked so hard to defeat.

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

Editor: Edward White