Done Deal: How Hong Kong's New Leader Reached the Top

Done Deal: How Hong Kong's New Leader Reached the Top
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
What you need to know

Real elections, the kind those fractious oppositionist elements are demanding, create nothing but trouble: social strife, polarization and worst of all uncertainty.

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This is the way they like it. Old loyalists said after Hong Kong’s 2014-15 election reform proposals were vetoed that if it was up to them, the proposals should never be resuscitated and reintroduced. They were supposed to fulfill Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 45 mandate to introduce universal suffrage elections for the highest office in the Special Administrative Region. According to the timetable Beijing laid down in 2007, the new rules were to be in place by the 2017 election. Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive will serve for the coming five-year 2017-2022 term that will begin on July 1, which is coincidentally the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule.

One major problem with the government’s electoral reform bill was that it followed the specifications laid down by Beijing’s restrictive Aug. 31, 2014, decision. According to that design, Beijing would vet the candidates under strict rules and nomination procedures, leaving the promise of Hong Kong’s long-sought one-person, one-vote universal suffrage election to become essentially a mainland-style rubber-stamp exercise.

Hence the 79-day Occupy resistance movement that began in September 2014. And hence pro-democracy legislators’ decision to veto the government’s proposed electoral reform bill when it came due for a vote in 2015. Which brings us to where we are now: the March 26, 2017, selection of a Chief Executive for the coming 2017-2022 term.

Reminiscing on these events, the pro-Beijing loyalist old-timers say it’s just what they always expected: real elections, the kind those fractious oppositionist elements are demanding, create nothing but trouble: social strife, polarization, and worst of all uncertainty — since no one can really be sure who will win. Beijing’s ways are best. The leaders decide and their chosen representatives endorse. Let those already occupying positions of authority make the decisions about who they want to succeed them.

So to make a long story short, the Chinese Communist Party’s top leaders decided unanimously at a Political Bureau Standing Committee meeting last Dec. 25 that the person they wanted to become Hong Kong Chief Executive for the coming 2017-2022 term was the person who had held the position of Number Two in the Hong Kong government for the past 2012-2017 term. That person is Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), a career civil servant who has served as efficient and loyal deputy to the current much-disliked Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) throughout his five years in office (Feb. 27 post).

Since the government’s draft universal suffrage bill was defeated, the only way to select a new leader was to fall back on the mechanism that has been used since 1997, namely, the multifaceted Election Committee. This now has 2,000 members whose origins in four “Functional Constituency” sectors and 38 subsectors are mandated by Hong Kong’s Basic Law (Annex I). That law was drafted to Beijing’s specifications in the 1980s, to serve as Hong Kong’s constitution for 50 years from 1997.

Reforming the Functional Constituencies, dubbed by critics as “small circles,” has been a subject of debate for years. Unfortunately for the critics, this unique design now seems firmly entrenched. They have suggested many different ways of getting rid of them but to no avail since the beneficiaries, who regard themselves as Hong Kong’s post-1997 elite, find it a comfortable arrangement. So much so that they’ve begun to say Functional Constituencies are actually a form of universal suffrage and should therefore be made a permanent feature of Hong Kong’s Basic Law rule.

Their argument follows from its Articles 45 and 68 that promise eventual universal suffrage elections for both Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council. But evidently, the beneficiaries have won the day since the official 2014 and 2015 proposals left the Election Committee intact and unchanged.

Its small circles are elected from among their own kind every five years. The Functional Constituency electorate numbers about 230,000 voters who elected the present committee last December (Dec. 14, 2016, post).

Its four sectors and 38 sub-sectors were designed so as to ensure that conservatives and pro-Beijing loyalists dominate. Pro-democracy partisans managed to win a record 325 seats among the 2,000 in last December’s electoral exercise. Actually, there are only 1,194 people on the committee due to six overlapping positions.

Michael Tien (田北辰), for example, is both a Hong Kong Legislative Councilor and a member of Hong Kong’s delegation to the National People’s Congress since Beijing has established its usual organizational practice of overlapping memberships. Not all legislators are concurrently NPC delegates. But the communist party custom of linking representative bodies has been established in this way. Additionally, all members of both groups are concurrently ex officio members of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Election Committee accounting for 106 of its total number.

The Election Committee routines may be totally arcane and outdated, but loyalists are now saying that’s what democracy partisans deserve because they had a chance for something else and rejected it. Of course, that option, which was mandated by Beijing’s August 31, 2014 decision on electoral reform would have allowed the same arcane Election Committee to become the Nominating Committee, to be retained in perpetuity, and fully half its members would have been needed to endorse each candidate with Beijing still having the final say. So the end result could not have been all that threatening. But in loyalist eyes, the old ways are best, far less disruptive and with results foreordained.

Election committee choices

The same 1,194 members nominate as well as elect. Aspiring candidates need only obtain the signatures of 150 Election Committee members to qualify. But to win, a candidate needs the votes of 601 Election Committee members.

Nomination Signatures (Feb. 14-Mar. 1):

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngo (林鄭月娥) — 580

John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華) — 165

Judge Woo Kwok-hing (胡國興) — 180

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee (葉劉淑儀) — 20

Final Vote Counts (March 26):

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngo — 777

John Tsang Chun-wah — 365

Judge Woo Kwok-hing — 21

The results were about what was expected as D-Day March 26 approached. But they belied the effort that went into the production and obscured how hard everyone thought they had to work just to achieve what had been anticipated from the start.

Campaigning for victory: Beijing and Carrie Lam

Beijing’s direct intervention violated the spirit of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Article 22 that forbids mainland interference. But for Beijing officials, the perceived threat justified stepping out of line on the means. In fact, Beijing threw caution to the winds in order not to risk an unintended consequence since even in Hong Kong’s unreformed system, an element of uncertainty crept in.

That element came in the form of candidate John Tsang and pan-democrats decision to adopt him as one of their own. For that, of course, Beijing officials had no one but themselves to blame. Had they and Hong Kong’s loyalist camp not declared so openly for Carrie Lam, pan-democrats might not have been quite so ready to dub her Leung Chun-ying 2.0, making it their theme throughout the campaign.

But anticipating the desired results beforehand also makes it easier to deduce Beijing’s plans for dealing with what officials have come to refer to as their Hong Kong problem, namely, the Hong Kong “opposition.” Opponents are all who fall into the category of pan-democrats since by Beijing’s definition, they are still rejecting what Beijing means by its injunction to “love the Motherland, and love Hong Kong.”

This was one of Beijing’s key criteria for appointing whoever was elected on March 26, the criterion necessary to win Beijing’s trust. But political love means different things to different people. For now, Beijing is still seeking those who love it on its own terms, which means acceptance of Beijing’s decisions, directives, and demands.

Beijing’s current thinking about how to cope with its Hong Kong problem can be deduced from Carrie Lam’s carefully drafted campaign manifesto and from the mid-March meetings of the National People’s Congress in Beijing. This annual gathering became another venue for Beijing officials, along with Hong Kong’s own 36-member delegation, to perform in their new unfamiliar roles as election campaign lobbyists and promoters.

Carrie Lam moved lightly over the two most potentially disruptive items on Beijing’s to-do list for Hong Kong. These are electoral reform and national security legislation. The latter is mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law. Loyalists regularly call for reintroduction of Article 23 legislation, shelved after the massive protests of 2003.

In contrast to Carrie Lam, erstwhile candidate Regina Ip had called for the reintroduction of both electoral reform and the Article 23 legislation. Lam spoke instead of the need for a period of calm and consensus-building in order to avoid more controversy and social disturbances. Toward that end, she wants to focus on diversifying the economy, creating better opportunities for young people, and all kinds of livelihood issues, in the hope it will take everyone’s mind off divisive political questions.*

Beijing officials are conveying the same message, albeit with an additional unabashed mainland-oriented theme. This continues to focus on economics and infrastructure integration, which they continue to promote as the means of harmonizing cross-border tensions — still without giving an inch on matters of political integration such as electoral reform and Article 23, which pan-democrats fear most.

Noticeable by its absence in Beijing’s campaigning, for example, was all mention of the “high degree of autonomy” that post-1997 Hong Kong was supposed to be enjoying throughout its first 50 years under Chinese rule.

All of these themes came together during the annual press conference hosted by the richest of Hong Kong’s tycoons, Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), when he and his sons presented their annual report on the Li family’s myriad business enterprises.

By then all of Hong Kong’s biggest property developers, who naturally have seats on the Election Committee, had declared for Carrie Lam. Meanwhile, “sources” were reliably reporting that Beijing official Zhang Dejiang (張德江), during his lobbying trip to Shenzhen in February (Feb. 27 post), had shared a meal with the three men. The two sons ultimately revealed their intentions. But the 90-year-old patriarch held out.

At the press conference, still refusing to name Carrie Lam, he said only that his vote would go to someone like the mythical goddess Nu-wa (女媧), who could accomplish miraculous feats that ordinary mortals could not. According to legend, she repaired the pillars of heaven, broken during a fierce battle between earthly enemies, thereby saving all under heaven from impending chaos (all papers, March 23).

Li was rumored to have been leaning toward John Tsang. Big business people are reputedly leery of Lam as a potential budget-buster intent on social spending to placate a public disgruntled on many matters besides politics. John Tsang as Financial Secretary was famous for maintaining budget surpluses that he refused to spend.

Counterpoint: Strategizing for defeat

Pan-democrats agreed early on not to field a candidate because they concluded that both they and the public had learned all they could in years past from the otherwise futile experience. Democrats ran candidates in 2007 and 2012 just for the experience to be gained thereby.

Considering his conservative management of Hong Kong’s finances, John Tsang seemed unlikely to generate much enthusiasm from the 325 democrats who won seats on the Election Committee last December (Dec. 14 post). Tsang seemed an even more unlikely prospect after he introduced his platform and began presenting himself to the public.*

He began by calling for a resumption of the ill-fated 2014-15 electoral reform project based on Beijing’s restrictive design, without acknowledging why it had provoked the Occupy protest movement. He also said Hong Kong was duty bound to honor the Article 23 national security mandate, again without acknowledging the fears the original effort had aroused in 2003. But that was at the start, before Beijing’s promotion of Carrie Lam began in earnest and pan-dems decided on the strategy of all-out support for Tsang as the “lesser of two evils.”

The third candidate, Judge Woo Kwok-king, initially seemed a more compatible prospect. He had said his main objective was to try and prevent a second term for Leung Chun-ying. But after Leung stood down, Judge Woo seemed to lose his drive. He nevertheless carried on with a platform that seemed to have possibilities.* Woo projected the gradual evolution of Beijing’s restrictive August 31, 2014 electoral reform design forward to 2032, when most voters could be included as Nominating Committee electors and the Functional Constitutes would have somehow faded away.

He didn’t dwell on Article 23, focusing on Article 22 instead. This he said should be reaffirmed in legislation to safeguard “one country, two systems” by passing a local law to prohibit mainland meddling in Hong Kong’s political system.

Woo seemed a more compatible choice for the 300 plus Election Committee democrats — until Beijing’s bandwagon began rolling with the specific purpose of cutting John Tsang out of the picture. According to all the unattributed “sources,” Beijing had sent out many signals in an effort to discourage him from contesting. These signals included even the threat not to appoint him should he actually be elected (Feb. 27 post).

All to no avail. Tsang persisted, modified his message on electoral reform and Article 23 somewhat, and pan-democrats identified with his defiance. Whatever negatives his candidacy contained, Tsang’s willingness to resist Beijing became his most commendable trait. The 300 plus Election Committee democrats therefore decided initially to split their nomination votes since they had enough for two candidates. This they did, with the intention of deciding what to do on March 26 as campaign trends developed during the six weeks after nominations closed.

Professor Benny Tai’s (戴耀廷) civil referendum campaign was supposed to provide the guidance that would help democratic Election Committee members decide (Jan. 20 post). The idea was to offer all Hong Kong residents a chance to state their preferences either online or at a few designated polling sites around town. Such exercises have been successfully conducted before, in coordination with the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program.

Prof. Tai and his Citizens United in Action group announced a target of one million voters. But this time he failed. Their website and apps were twice challenged for security lapses by Hong Kong’s zealous Privacy Commissioner. And one of the three in-person polling sites was disallowed at the last minute, presumably for political reasons.

Ultimately, only 65,000 (as initially announced) Hong Kongers participated — all with strong pro-democracy inclinations. For what it was worth: John Tsang was the overwhelming favorite. The final tally was 91.9 percent for Tsang; 27 percent for Judge Woo; and 1.59 percent for Lam.

The standard Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program rolling poll’s final entry registered: 56 percent for Tsang; 29 percent for Lam; and 9 percent for Woo. **

The failed online referendum also marked the failure of “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung’s (梁國雄) “ a plague on both your houses” idea. He had tied his candidacy to Benny Tai’s online exercise. But whether for its technical breakdowns or the public’s lack of interest, Leung didn’t collect enough nominations to make his effort seem worthwhile. His aim had been to provide an alternative to both Lam and Tsang because Leung disliked the idea of pan-dems trying to play king-maker. He said none of the candidates were worthy because none had the courage to pursue a democratic agenda in the face of Beijing’s opposition (Jan. 20 post).

But failed or not, the Election Committee’s March 26 vote reflected the will of Benny Tai’s online voters. Virtually all 300 plus Election Committee democrats cast their ballots for John Tsang.

Yet they were still no match for Beijing’s might. And after Li Ka-shing invoked the gods on Carrie Lam’s behalf, it was clear the game was over. Another interesting insight was provided a few days after Li’s invocation, in a full-page article signed by a veteran loyalist in the currently pro-Beijing pro-Carrie Lam Chinese-language SingTao Daily. The article was trying to explain why Beijing distrusted John Tsang, since that question had never answered.

The reasons: his lack of a firm political stand, friendship with pan-democrats, failure to heed Beijing’s signals, and association with people who were in turn associated with foreign forces. It might have been convincing except that all the reasons seemed to date from the time after Tsang began making known his political ambitions (SingTao, March 24).

Another full-page spread gave his foreign-force connections a similar timeline. It seems an American company called APCO Worldwide has two American executives who have ties to American politicians, and two of this company’s Hong Kong consultants were members of John Tsang’s campaign team (Ta Kung Pao, March 22).

All of which suggests that Beijing didn’t trust John Tsang not because they had any serious grievances against him — but simply because they had already decided to tap Carrie Lam as the safest pair of Hong Kong hands and his candidacy complicated the smooth roll-out of their plans.

* Platforms:

Carrie Lam: http://wpadmin2017.carrielam2017.hk/media/my/2017/01/Manifesto_e_v2.pdf

John Tsang: https://www.johntsang2017.hk/en/platform.html

Judge Woo: https://woo-kwok-hing.com/assets/docs/platform-eng_print.pdf

Regina Ip: https://www.cpaglobal.com/the-ip-platform?ads_

Graphics explaining where candidates stood, on 10 different issues, from late February (they adjusted their positions somewhat as the campaign wore on):

http://www.scmp.com/print/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2074302/carrie-lam-should-keep-criticism-fellow-officials-behind

** Polling:

https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/features/ceelection/2017/lc2017/index.html

Polling also in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Chief_Executive_election,_2017

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


TNL Editor: Edward White