Hong Kong's Messy Election Campaign

For weeks now, Hong Kong has been captivated by the boisterous, no-holds-barred campaign for its next leader, and to an outsider it may even appear to be a normal, democratic contest.

The two main candidates’ positions have been publicly dissected and they’ve thrashed each other in highly viewed televised debates. The city’s press has done a good job of digging up dirt on the candidates, fueling public interest (or at least mockery) in the campaign that culminates Sunday.

But here is where the comparison to normal elections ends. Fifteen years after Hong Kong and its seven million citizens were handed by the British over to the Chinese, the chief executive — a fitting title for the leader of so wealthy and business-oriented a city — is still chosen by 1,200 electors (for various reasons, only 1,193 people on the committee are eligible to vote in this election). And the selection process for the electors was designed to ensure that Beijing’s pick gets the top post.

Still, the unusually fierce combat among the candidates, and a public fed up with having too little say in public affairs, have upended the usual script. Both of Beijing’s “acceptable” candidates have so much muck on their faces that their credibility has been severely damaged. And China’s rulers do not like leaders with credibility problems.

A couple of months ago, the election appeared to be on autopilot. Henry Tang, the son of a Shanghai textile tycoon and a veteran of Hong Kong politics, was widely expected to coast to victory with Beijing’s blessing. Tang’s main challenger, Leung Chun-ying, a real-estate surveyor running on a more populist platform, was also considered acceptable to Beijing. But Tang was preferred by Hong Kong’s wealthy tycoons, thus relegating Leung to the second slot in the scripted contest. (There is a third candidate, a legitimate democrat, but he has no chance.) Leung scored higher than Tang in popularity polls, but Tang was seen to be Beijing’s man. Until the press got a look at his basement.

Tang, who had admitted to marriage infidelity last year, was never popular, but he took a dramatic slide in public opinion when the media discovered that he had added a huge basement to one of his upscale family properties without the proper permits and without paying real-estate taxes. The story dominated the media for days, with a celebrated picture of news photographers on cranes above Tang’s compound.

The basement was described as a lavish complex, complete with movie theater and wine cellar. In a city with one of the world’s highest wealth gaps, the news didn’t go over well. Leung’s popularity rose along with Beijing’s discomfort over Tang.

Meanwhile, Leung has had his own problems. He was accused of having a conflict of interest while acting as a competition judge for a government-backed cultural development project a decade ago, for which he is currently under questioning at a special legislative inquiry that will go on until after election day. His campaign team members have been accused of consorting with an alleged gangster.

While Leung harps on about Tang’s infidelity and his illegal basement, Tang plays up the longstanding public suspicion that Leung may be an underground member of the Chinese Communist Party and claims that Leung is a hard-liner who will be more than willing to ignore Hong Kong’s liberal traditions.

The word is that Leung is now Beijing’s pick; Tang’s credibility is just too damaged. Pro-Beijing newspapers are praising Leung while mainland officials are courting Hong Kong election-committee members on Leung’s behalf. Some of the rich voters on the election committee appear to be unhappy at being told how to vote this time — some have even publicly threatened to abstain from voting — yet in all likelihood the frenzy will dissipate as we close in on the Sunday vote.

But the bruising battles and free-wheeling nature of the debating have emboldened the public and revived loud demands from Hong Kongers for real elections. The radio waves and the Internet have been bursting with frustrated citizens demanding this. They don’t want to see Beijing working behind the scenes; they want credible candidates and they want to elect them directly.

This should surprise no one. One public survey after another over two decades has shown that the people prefer to elect their political leaders directly. After years of muttering in favor of reform, and amid occasional bursts of public protests, Beijing indicated in 2007 that Hong Kongers may be able to directly elect their chief executive in 2017 — though with the caveat that there will be a nomination process to filter undesirable candidates (read: ones that Beijing feels uncomfortable with.)

But this campaign has demonstrated to Beijing that the pressures for direct elections are greater than it suspected. The question is whether the 2012 election campaign will prove to slow or to expedite democratic reform in Hong Kong.

The fear is that the lesson China’s leaders take from this campaign is that democracy is too messy for their liking. So it’s possible we’ll see more control from Beijing in the next election for a chief executive five years from now.

The other possibility is that Beijing will see the obvious: The current system is unsustainable and we will continue to say so loudly. And no one, least of all China’s leaders, likes disharmony.

Democracy is clearly a safer bet — even for Beijing.

By Christine Loh, chief executive of Civic Exchange, a Hong-Kong based think tank.

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