Beijing’s Choice but Not the People’s: Why Hong Kong’s Next Leader Faces a Tough Task

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Aaron Tam / AFP / Getty Images

C.Y. Leung waves after being announced as the winner of the Hong Kong Chief Executive election on March 25, 2012

The election on Sunday of wealthy chartered surveyor C.Y. Leung as Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive (CE) has come as little surprise in a city where the result has been seen as a foregone conclusion for some days. The campaign for the top government position in this Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China began in ostensibly lively fashion with the stump speeches, televised debates, scandals and other trappings of real-world politics, before slowly ossifying into what most Hong Kongers knew it would be: an empty show, designed to ensure that Beijing maintains a firm grip on the city through the oligarchic selection of a candidate who can be relied upon to uphold its interests.

Rowdy protests outside the polling venue — and a mock election conducted by the University of Hong Kong, which found that over half of nearly 223,000 respondents would have rejected all three candidates — reveal the Hong Kong public’s anger and antipathy toward an election that gives voting rights to just a nanoscopic fraction of the city’s population. Only 1,200 people in this sophisticated financial capital of 7 million have the right to vote for the CE. They comprise a superelite of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons, professionals and politicians, of which a slender majority of 689 voted for Leung. The other two candidates were Henry Tang, the ineffectual scion of a textile dynasty (who is also a former civil-service chief), and Albert Ho, a seasoned democracy campaigner who ran without hope of victory in order to blast the inadequacies of the electoral system.

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It is widely believed that Leung’s backers in the electoral college cast their ballots according to the wishes of Beijing, whose officials reportedly canvassed voters in person and by phone, and thereby violated the cherished “one country, two systems” principle by which China has promised to keep out of the political affairs of its SAR. “In the coming days, we have to be alert because we have reason to worry and fear that Hong Kong’s core values will be challenged,” pro-democracy candidate Ho declared in a speech made after results were announced.

Leung isn’t entirely without public support, however. The son of a police officer, he is seen as a self-made individual who fulfilled the Hong Kong dream — parlaying modest origins into a fabulously successful career in real estate and a 12-year stint as convener of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, the government’s policymaking body. Despite fears that Leung is Beijing’s man, many have high hopes for his plans to tackle Hong Kong’s two main social ills: unaffordable housing and a wealth gap that is the widest among the world’s developed societies. Regina Ip, a lawmaker and head of the proestablishment New People’s Party, says she is optimistic that Leung will keep his pledge to improve those issues. “His plan for land and housing is the best that I’ve seen. It is because he has a lot of experience in this area,” she says.

Neither does everyone believe that Leung will robotically act as China’s proxy. Erect of bearing, poised of manner and measured of speech, the CE-designate easily creates a stronger and more confident impression than either the incumbent — bow-tie-wearing, lifelong civil servant Donald Tsang — or the hopelessly patrician Tang. “It will be interesting to see how he does with Beijing because Beijing in the past has liked a leader who’s not very strong and the business elite likes a leader who is not very strong,” says David Zweig, chair professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “And now you’ve got a strong leader, and so that will make politics much more interesting.”

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But while commentators predict Leung will quickly provide some social benefits, such as expediting a public-housing scheme and raising the minimum wage, many are skeptical of his longer-term motivations. “He will satisfy the people. He will hand over the benefits first of all, to establish the people of Hong Kong on his side,” says Allen Lee, a political analyst and former lawmaker. But these measures, Lee believes, will simply give Leung more leverage to enact less popular measures on behalf of Beijing later.

The greatest concern among the general public is that Leung is not committed to the democratic process. The widespread rumor that he is a covert member of the Chinese Communist Party — which he denies — has stoked fears that China will try to suppress basic freedoms in Hong Kong through him. Many expect that he will try to pass Article 23, a national security bill seen as repressive and draconian. The bill was first introduced in 2003 but was shelved following some of the largest popular protests Hong Kong has ever seen. (In a recent debate, defeated candidate Tang accused Leung of advising the administration to use force against protesters in 2003, an allegation that Leung denies.)

Zweig believes that Leung “will try” to reintroduce Article 23 during his term. “I think he probably feels that it’s his responsibility.” It is also likely that Leung’s term will see no substantial progress made toward universal suffrage in the next CE election in 2017 (the earliest year that Beijing has said it will countenance a territory-wide vote). “He’s never been a strong advocate,” says Zweig, “and he’s been cautious on that, as if he’s taking his time trying to figure out what the central government’s view is.”

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Though he has the backing of powerful tycoons — including some who brazenly defected from his rival’s camp — Hong Kong’s powerful business community has not unanimously come out in support of Leung. Shortly before the election, the probusiness Liberal Party said its electoral-college members would be casting blank ballots instead of voting for Leung. The fear is that Leung will not as readily prioritize the interests of Hong Kong’s business oligarchy as readily as the blue-blooded Tang would have done. The CE-designate needs to “communicate to the business community that it has no need to fear his administration — that he respects the interests of the business community,” says Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.

One thing is certain. Leung’s job will be far from easy. “I think it might be very much a battle for him to keep some kind of credibility in the coming years,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. That’s because Leung must try to gain the trust of a society that is largely suspicious of him, ease social inequality without alarming the business community, entertain the democratic aspirations of an educated populace while upholding Beijing’s politically conservative agenda, and hope for re-election in five years. Those would be difficult goals for the most popular of politicians. But for a man whose electoral base numbers just 689 carefully selected voters, they appear gargantuan.

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