Waiting for a campaign in Hong Kong

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It’s been hard to avoid the news that Hillary Rodham Clinton has entered the race for the U.S. presidency, an election that is nearly two years away. Hong Kong has an election coming up too, and though it is just two months away the man who is almost certain to win has yet to announce his candidacy. Chief Executive Donald Tsang has strongly hinted that he will seek re-election to his post, the top political office in Hong Kong. But he’s been coy about making an official statement.

Unlike 2005, when he faced only a nominal challenge to fill the vacancy left after the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa resigned, this year there’s at least the appearance of a contest. The challenger is Alan Leong, a lawyer and representative in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The choice will be made in March by the 800-member Election Committee. The group, whose members are mostly chosen by business, professional and religious groups, tends to vote whichever way the wind from Beijing blows. Leong, a member of the democratic camp, has little to no chance, but he’s won enough support that he will likely force a formal committee vote. That would make this possibly the most competitive election for a high office in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Given the PRC’s rather limited history of competitive elections, that’s a bit like telling your mom she’s the best mother you ever had.

But it could make for an interesting race, were it to ever officially start. Thus far Tsang’s strategy seems to be to focus chiefly on being the chief executive, and not waste time on distractions like campaigning. His duty, he told the Legislative Council earlier this month, is to maintain economic prosperity. “I cannot afford to fail,” he said. “As such, I believe that the effect of my personal election activities on the day-to-day governance must be kept to a minimum.” It’s not a bad strategy. After all, the economy is doing well. And though his popularity has declined to historic lows, Tsang still enjoys a respectable 60% approval rating, according to Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program.

Hong Kong’s overall outlook has improved since 2003, when a weak economy and efforts by the government to push through a controversial anti-subversion law drew 500,000 people to a public protest. But there are growing concerns about air pollution, the preservation of historic buildings, a rising income gap, and how to move towards the territory’s stated goal of letting the voters choose the Chief Executive and all members of the Legislative Council. A full-fledged campaign might help determine how Hong Kong will handle those questions. But right now, the biggest question in town seems to be when the Chief Executive will finally announce his intentions.