For Some, a Win-Win Election in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's three leadership candidates, from left: John Tsang, Carrie Lam-Cheng Yuet-Ngor and Woo Kok-hing before facing  off in their first televised debate in Hong Kong this month.
Hong Kong's three leadership candidates, from left: John Tsang, Carrie Lam-Cheng Yuet-Ngor and Woo Kok-hing before facing off in their first televised debate in Hong Kong this month.

The more formidable challenger is John Tsang Chun-wah, Mr. Leung’s former finance secretary, whose folksy style and smooth P.R. skills contrast with Ms. Lam’s stern and strait-jacketed ways. Mr. Tsang has jokingly called the chief executive position a “thankless, rotten job.” His tickling likeness to the mustachioed Pringles character has earned him the endearing nickname Uncle Chips. Mr. Tsang’s platform promotes conciliation between the government and the various opposition forces, a popular view. He leads Ms. Lam by some 20 percentage points in many recent polls.

The pro-democracy camp, which has no credible candidate of its own but is eager to see Ms. Lam defeated (if only to spite Beijing), is firmly behind Mr. Tsang. And for once, it has a fighting chance of getting what it wants.

In the past, Beijing could comfortably count on some 1,000 of the 1,200 votes in the Election Committee — a hodgepodge of people handpicked by local industry leaders, elected representatives from professional groups such as accountants and medical personnel, and proxies for the Chinese government like the local deputies of the National People’s Congress. The sole pro-democracy candidate in the 2012 election garnered a paltry 76 votes. This time, however, more than 300 votes are in pro-democracy hands.

Known as the “Democrats 300+,” the pro-democracy voters on the committee may well derail Ms. Lam’s bid for the chief executive job, partly by exploiting a cleavage within the local establishment that has become apparent since the 2012 election. That year the bigger faction, which included many of Hong Kong’s top tycoons, saw its candidate, Henry Tang Ying-yen, lose out to Mr. Leung — over a real estate scandal that turned out to be no worse than another one involving Mr. Leung.

The event solidified a growing split within Hong Kong’s ruling class, between what became known as the Leung Camp and the Tang Camp. Each group is held together by interlocking business ties and sometimes family connections, and driven more by self-interest than ideological concerns. Li Ka-shing, the richest person in Hong Kong by far, is widely regarded as the Tang Camp’s éminence grise.

Ever since early colonial days, Hong Kong’s business sector tended to support the city’s political leadership in exchange for various economic privileges. But since 1997, its members’ loyalties have split and shifted to various leaders in Beijing who have helped them secure lucrative opportunities on the mainland. These new allegiances help explain both the rift between the Tang Camp and the Leung Camp and, more important, the fact that neither the Hong Kong government nor Beijing seems able to limit feuding between those groups. During the Umbrella Movement, for example, the beleaguered Leung administration got no help from the Tang Camp, even after the central government summoned Hong Kong tycoons to Beijing and pressed them to denounce the protesters.

With Mr. Leung now out of the race for chief executive, the Tang Camp has already won half the battle. The question is how much more it can gain.

The firmly pro-business Mr. Tsang is, logically, its preferred candidate for chief executive. Mr. Leung’s supporters have staged a rear-guard action to smear him, pointing to Mr. Tsang’s American background — he graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York and holds degrees from M.I.T. and Harvard — as evidence that he would serve United States interests.

So far Mr. Tsang has seemed unlikely to get waylaid by the conspiracy theories, but were he to, most of his votes would likely shift to Mr. Woo. More interesting, even if he did lose ground to Ms. Lam, or lost the election itself, the Tang Camp might still win out.

Ms. Lam’s critics call her “C.Y. Leung 2.0,” but with Leung supporters in disarray after his setback, the bulk of Ms. Lam’s campaign team is now made up of members of the Tang Camp, such as Lam Tai-Fai, an industrialist and vocal Leung critic, and Ronald Arculli, a lawyer and a former deputy head of the Liberal Party. Mr. Tang himself has stated his support for Ms. Lam.

Since Ms. Lam lacks a power base of her own, were she to win the election, she would be susceptible to the influence of the Tang people surrounding her, including perhaps even to Mr. Tsang’s conciliation agenda. And all the more so because that outcome might sit well enough with Beijing: The presence of another hard-line leader in Hong Kong could help it save appearances even as, out of necessity, the new government would adopt a less confrontational ruling style.

Whatever the result of Sunday’s election, in other words, the Leung Camp can only lose, and the Tang Camp can only win. After five long years of Mr. Leung’s painfully divisive administration, a reprieve may finally have come for the people of Hong Kong.

Yi-Zheng Lian is a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs.

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