Hong Kong’s weirdly exclusive election campaign

It’s election season in Hong Kong. Candidates for the city’s top leadership position are busily campaigning, and TV and the newspapers are filled with reports about their doings.

Yet it’s a strange kind of election, and visitors from abroad could be forgiven for finding the whole thing a bit bewildering. In this race, the contenders don’t waste any time reaching out to the public by making promises or explaining platforms. Instead, the candidates schmooze behind closed doors with property tycoons, seasoned politicians, and representatives of professional bodies and trade associations. That’s because those are the sorts of people who make up the 1,194-member election committee that will select the city’s next chief executive on March 26. While their number includes over more than pro-democracy activists, most of the rest are pro-Beijing, meaning they have a vested interest in the (undemocratic) status quo.

In this sense, the chief executive election demonstrates just how little the Umbrella Movement, also known as Occupy Central, changed the political realities of Hong Kong. For 79 days from September to December in 2014, thousands of protesters occupied some of the city’s busiest public spaces to protest Beijing’s refusal to grant all Hong Kong citizens the right to vote for their own leader. (A reminder: Hong Kong has been a part of the People’s Republic of China since 1997, but its prior history as a British colony, and its embrace of Western influences and values as well as its high standards of living, have given the city a lively and confrontational public culture that often makes for an awkward fit with the Chinese Communist Party.)

The media in both Hong Kong and the West tended to characterize the Umbrella Movement as a “pro-democracy” campaign. It might have looked that way at the beginning, but as it progressed, what became clear wasn’t how much the protesters loved democracy, but how much they hated the status quo.

You could tell by their intransigence and their improbable demands for full democracy (something everyone knew Beijing was unlikely to allow) that the last thing they wanted was for things to return to normal. It was apparent that they saw themselves not only as fighters for democracy but also as victims of the oppression and tyranny of the powers that be. Sky-high property prices, for example, mean most young Hong Kong people today must scrape by just to afford their rent, while the dream of homeownership — once a given for members of the city’s middle class — has receded into the distance.

The fact that the Hong Kong government was caught so visibly off guard by this volcanic eruption of discontent showed just how complacent and out of touch the authorities had become. The lesson should have been clear: Public anger can be hard to detect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The price of good governance, like the price of freedom, is eternal vigilance.

So it’s not only unfortunate but also shocking that the current contenders for the post of chief executive — including a former chief secretary, a former financial secretary, a retired judge and a member of the city parliament — have so far had strikingly little to say about the issues that energized the Umbrella Movement, such as increasing social inequality, skyrocketing property prices and the lack of social mobility.

If John Tsang Chun-wah, the former financial secretary, seems more deserving of support than other candidates, it’s because he has worked hardest to engage Hong Kong people in the race — even though, under the city’s present political system, the people are powerless to influence the results of the election.

For example, he made a point of reaching out to the public by launching a month-long crowdfunding drive for his campaign, raising more than $260,000 on the first day. It is this sort of populist approach — together with the fact that he used his nine years as Hong Kong’s finance chief to hand out sweeteners to the citizens in his annual budgets (such as tax cuts and public housing subsidies) — that make Tsang the “people’s choice” in the race. One recent poll, commissioned by the South China Morning Post, the major English-language newspaper of Hong Kong, had Tsang leading by his opponents by more than 14 percentage points in terms of public support.

That, of course, won’t change the minds of the pro-Beijing committee members who are inclined to favor former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Beijing’s preferred candidate. In fact, it isn’t even certain that Tsang will get the necessary votes from the election committee to be officially nominated as a candidate, since all aspirants must secure at least 150 votes from the election committee before they can be considered for nomination.

To pass that hurdle, which could give him a real shot at winning the race, Tsang has to achieve two contradictory goals. First he has to gain the trust of Beijing, which is understandably suspicious of a candidate who once served as a private secretary to Chris Patten (the last colonial governor of Hong Kong). Then he has to earn the support of the city’s pan-democrats, zealous supporters of full suffrage, who hold 326 votes in the committee. And he must do both of these things without losing the popularity he now enjoys with the public. If he loses popularity, he will no longer be taken seriously as a candidate by either Beijing or the democrats.

Any missteps will hand an easy victory to his rival and former boss Lam. Unlike current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the 59-year-old Lam is not a divisive political figure. Lam led a scandal-free life during her 36 years with the government and has a reputation for getting things done. Many Hong Kong citizens would expect a new administration under her leadership to do a competent job of managing the city’s affairs and delivering good public services; she might even find a way to offer citizens a broader participation in the decision-making process. But she will not be able to give the one thing many Hong Kong people want the most: constitutional reform.

At a time when the city is crying out for a strong, unifying leader who can lead its inhabitants out of the wilderness of internal strife, generational conflict and ideological infighting, the chief executive election should be Hong Kong’s most anticipated political event. But it isn’t. Hong Kong people are not holding their collective breath, for they know whoever wins the election on March 26 can only turn out to be a disappointment. It remains a shame and a scandal that, of the nearly 7.4 million people in this vibrant, prosperous territory, only 1,194 of them can vote for the person who is supposed to lead them.

Perry Lam is a media analyst and political commentator based in Hong Kong.

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