Saturday, 31 March 2012

democracy, chinese style

Last Sunday, a new chief executive was elected who will be in charge of running the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) for the next five years. Note that I did not write ‘Hong Kong elected a new chief executive’: the choice was made by a 1,200-strong committee in what local critics described as a ‘small-circle election’.

There were three candidates: until he resigned to run in this election, as he was required to do, Henry Tang was the chief secretary for administration, second in the government hierarchy, while Leung Chun-ying was formerly convenor of non-official members of the territory’s executive council. Both could therefore be regarded as ‘establishment’ figures. Although Tang had the support of leading businessmen, the territory’s media had long been unimpressed by his intellectual ability, hence his sobriquet of ‘the pig’. Leung, on the other hand, was suspected of left-wing sentiments and if elected was expected to initiate measures to reduce the wealth gap between rich and poor. ‘The wolf’, as he was labelled, was even alleged to be a secret member of the Communist Party. Albert Ho, chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and a legislative councillor, was the third candidate, although he entered the contest with no hope of winning and took part merely to highlight the farcical nature of this so-called ‘election’.

The election committee included property tycoons, business and financial leaders, trade union representatives, politicians, and academics; what it did not include was ordinary members of the public. Given that China has had no experience of democracy throughout its long history, I suspect that the leadership in Beijing imagined that the rest of the world would see this pantomime as democratic and fail to notice that it was little more than an elaborate means of appointing the next man in charge.

If this was the plan, it backfired spectacularly. The election turned out to be more of a contest than the central government had bargained for. Tang was widely regarded as the central government’s choice—his father had been a wealthy Shanghai businessman with connections to former Chinese president Jiang Zemin—but he could not have done a better job of torpedoing his chances if he had actually been trying to do so. First, there was the revelation of an extramarital affair; Tang offered a grovelling public apology but resolutely refused to withdraw his candidacy amid reports that his wife was ‘standing by him’. Tang’s wife was called upon to bail him out again when the local press reported on a 2,000-square-foot basement at his luxury home in an upmarket district of Kowloon that had been constructed without planning permission. This was passed off implausibly as an oversight by Mrs Tang, but the story didn’t go down too well with the Hong Kong public, many of whom live in a small fraction of this space.

Although Leung had the odd skeleton in his own closet—a possible conflict of interest in a design competition ten years ago for which he was a judge being the most striking—it slowly became apparent that he was gaining ground at Tang’s expense. The story about his illegal basement had made it obvious to all but Tang himself that here was someone with no integrity who was desperate to win at all costs. We were therefore treated to the innuendo surrounding a dinner attended by members of Leung’s campaign team and the Heung Yee Kuk, a pressure group representing indigenous New Territories villagers that had votes on the election committee. Allegedly, the dinner was also attended by a businessman with suspected links to a local triad society, but no corroborating evidence was forthcoming.

Finally, in a televised debate, in order to show Leung up ‘for what he is’, Tang claimed that in an executive council meeting, Leung had advocated the deployment of riot police and the use of tear gas to deal with massive demonstrations in July 2003 against Article 23 of the Basic Law, which empowers Hong Kong to pass ‘national security’ legislation. This turned out to be yet another tactical mistake, partly because no one else who was present at the meeting could recall this conversation, and partly because in making this claim Tang was breaching a confidentiality protocol that is in place to encourage council members to speak freely when offering advice.

As election day approached, it was widely believed that Leung had become the central government’s preferred candidate; there were widespread rumours that officials from the central government’s local liaison office were lobbying election committee members on Leung’s behalf, prompting Albert Ho to complain that they were undermining the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. It should be pointed out here that ‘one country, two systems’ is not a principle, merely a catchphrase, something the Chinese government has always been good at coining. I half expected someone to trot out that other 1980s favourite, ‘maintaining the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong’, but this slogan seems to have been superseded by ‘maintaining Hong Kong’s core values’, whatever they are, since the 1997 handover.

In order to stand in this election, a candidate had needed the nominations of at least 150 members of the election committee. Although Tang had attracted the most nominations, in the election itself almost half of those who had endorsed his candidacy subsequently abandoned him. The final result was 689–285 in favour of Leung. More than a hundred electors either abstained or cast a blank ballot. Meanwhile, in an unofficial parallel poll organized by Hong Kong University for members of the public, more than one-third of participants also cast blank ballots, even though they had to stand in line for quite some time for the privilege of doing so.

One should be careful not to read too much into this result, although it probably mirrors the rivalry within the Chinese Communist Party between conservatives and reformers, a contest that the reformers are certain to win eventually. Of more interest is the parallel with politics and politicians in the West. It is difficult to avoid the impression that all three candidates in the recent election are utter mediocrities, which is something that voters in the West have grown accustomed to. One only has to think of the triumvirate of stuffed shirts at the apex of UK politics, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, to make this point. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, President Barack Obama ought to be a sitting duck in November’s US election, yet the best the Republican Party can offer is a choice between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Hobson’s choice is no choice at all, but apart from a few vocal activists Hong Kong’s residents won’t mind as long as Leung Chun-ying does nothing that interferes with or disrupts their traditional way of life.


  1. I can't even imagine the political gymnastics that is going on there. Do you think that China is ever going to try and get Hong Kong totally under their thumb?

  2. Pat, China already exerts more control over Hong Kong than I’d like, including allowing a steady stream of one-way permit holders to enter the territory. At least Hong Kong people continue to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which is widely regarded on the mainland as Western propaganda.


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