Posted:  Jan. 4, 2012


With the November District Councils election now an unhappy memory for Hong Kong democrats, attention has re-focused on the next (decidedly un-democratic) phase of its long drawn out 2011/12 election cycle.   Here there are no jokes about “small benefits and favors” or snakes and cakes for grassroots voters since the key players at this level are not grassroots and benefits don’t need to be discussed.    In polite formal discourse the people who count are known as stake-holders, otherwise referred to as the power elite, tycoons, social notables, and so on.  Some count more than others, of course, but a representative sample is currently engaged in the convoluted process of confirming Beijing’s choice for Chief Executive.  He will succeed Donald Tsang, whose term expires next June, and serve for five years.

Initially, defenders of this exercise liked to say that at least it was more open than before 1997, when the colonial governor was appointed by British government officials in London and designated local dignitaries lined up to greet him on arrival at Queen’s Pier.   Two decades and more of agitation for universal suffrage elections, formalized in Article 45 of the Basic Law, has resulted in Beijing’s promise that the selection procedures designed during the pre-1997 transition to Chinese rule will end with the coming 2012-17 Chief Executive term.  According to this design, a representative sample of the post-colonial establishment is elected to form an Election Committee that then confirms Beijing’s preferred candidate (July 23, 2010 post).  But everyone who is currently commenting on the matter assumes that nominations for post-2017 universal suffrage elections will derive from their 1997-2017 predecessor, which means “the committee” is likely to cast a long shadow.

It currently works like so.  (1) The 28 Functional Constituencies, with their combined total electorate of 200,000+ voters, are not only responsible for filling half the legislature’s seats (April 16, 2010 post).  The same constituencies also elect most of the Chief Executive Election Committee.  This has just been increased from 800 to 1,200 members but its composition is the same as before.  (2)  The committee then nominates candidates who need the endorsement signatures of 150 members to qualify, although candidates need not themselves be committee members.  In theory, anyone can be nominated who is a Chinese citizen, has lived in Hong Kong continuously for 20 years, and is over 40 years of age.  (3)  The winning candidate is then endorsed by all the committee’s members, on a one-person-one-vote basis, with 601 votes needed to confirm victory.

Hong Kong is now midway through this process.  The Election Committee election was held on December 11.   The signed nomination papers must be submitted between February 14 and 29.  Pan-democrats will select their candidate  —  there are two main contenders  —  after conducting opinion polls in early January, and holding an on-line primary election scheduled for this coming Sunday (January 8).  Hong Kong University opinion pollster Robert Chung is making plans for an on-line mock election he wants to hold on March 23.   Election Day itself is March 25.


From their perspective, Beijing officials are right to be wary of elections because they can never be absolutely sure their “unitary” way of governing will prevail.  If the opportunity is there, no matter how limited, someone is sure to take advantage  —  like the many independent candidates who are creating headaches for local authorities during the mainland’s current cycle of grassroots people’s congress elections.  Under Hong Kong’s temporary one-country two-systems governing arrangement, where the unitary principle does not yet apply, opportunities are much greater.  In 2007, the newly formed Civic Party wanted to introduce itself and use the Chief Executive selection process as a platform for public debate, even though the Election Committee is stacked with conservatives making it impossible for a democratic candidate to win.  Beijing was unhappy with this challenge to its pre-selected candidate, the incumbent Donald Tsang.  And Beijing was even more unhappy with Civic Party candidate Alan Leong’s debating points  —  so much so that a press campaign was launched to discredit his most daring proposals.

This year the contest is even more provocative and not just because Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho has decided to follow in Alan Leong’s footsteps.  Beijing’s real dilemma has been created by one of its own closest allies who decided at least two years ago that he wanted to be Chief Executive after all.  Meanwhile, Beijing had been quietly grooming another candidate while apparently trying to institutionalize a line of succession that might be used to prepare safe candidates in anticipation of the promised 2017 “universal suffrage” election.   But then things grew even more complicated.

Independent opinion polls showed the public, and young people especially, liked the wild card candidate much better than the other.  In fact, they liked several others better.  What’s more, the polls began registering this result around the same time last summer that Beijing’s top official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, Wang Guangya, added a new criterion for prospective leaders.  Besides being patriotic and capable, said Wang, the candidate must be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong.  By way of explanation, he was quoted as saying: ‘So that everyone will generally feel the person elected is about right’ (Wen Wei Po, July 12, 2011).  So after some initial hesitation, Beijing has decided to let the campaign run its course and make known a final choice “later.”


The mystery man is Leung Chun-ying (Liang Zhenying 梁振英) or CY for short, who has been a leading member of Beijing’s Hong Kong governing establishment since it’s foundations were laid in the mid-1980s.  Then in his early 30s and without any of the right family connections  —  whether British colonial or pro-Beijing patriotic  —    Leung entered at the top, occupying a prominent perch on the first of the building blocks Beijing constructed here.   He then moved on from one to the next in an unbroken upward trajectory.

This unusual resume has naturally inspired many rumors.   Leung must be a member of Hong Kong’s underground communist party branch …  or maybe he was at least inducted into the Communist Youth League when he began applying his newly-minted status as a chartered surveyor to the new demands for cross-border expertise in the late 1970s.  On occasion he has denied such rumors outright, which suggests that he is not a party member.  But mostly he has evaded the questions, which is the practice of those everyone assumes must surely be.

Leung Chun-ying’s parents were among the thousands of mainland migrants who fled China’s communist revolution in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  But unlike the majority of Hong Kong’s migrant population, this family came from the North, and his father was recruited into the police force as were many men from Shandong province following British colonial policing practice.  Born in Hong Kong in 1954, Leung grew up in the Hollywood Road police compound where the family home was a standard miniscule government-issue apartment.  His path upward began when he won a scholarship that allowed him to attend an elite secondary school located nearby. From there he went to Hong Kong Polytechnic and from there to Britain where he earned a degree in surveying from Bristol Polytechnic.

Returning to Hong Kong in 1977, he arrived back at just the right time to benefit from the new cross-border demand for expertise and capital that followed China’s post-1978 decision to learn the ways of the capitalist West including the privatization of land use.  Leung’s profession as a land surveyor was made to order for the new era and property development on both sides of the border would soon make him a millionaire many times over.  But besides wealth he also earned, for his advice and services in the 1980s, the gratitude of many mainland officials.  These included Shanghai major, Zhu Rongji, who would move on to become China’s Premier in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong Beijing was left with the difficult task of putting together a transition team and welcomed anyone willing to join the new order at a time when many were not.    In 1985, Leung was appointed to the 180-member Basic Law Consultative Committee, elected to its standing committee, and later named secretary-general.  The BLCC’s task was to canvass Hong Kong views for use by the Basic Law Drafting Committee.  Its Hong Kong members worked with Beijing to write the mini-constitution that was to govern Hong Kong for the 1997-2047 transition to full mainland rule.

Inspired by events in Tiananmen Square and the Soviet bloc between 1989 and 1991, London then decided to hasten the snail-paced political reform anticipated by the Basic Law.   In return, Beijing decided to begin dismantling all such reform initiatives immediately, as they were being introduced by the last British governor, Christopher Patten.  A 70-member Preliminary Working Committee was formed with a mix of Hong Kong and mainland members to oversee the task.

Leung earned the enmity of democracy activists at this time, between 1993 and 1997, as a blunt uncompromising implementer of Beijing’s dismantling project.  He acquired this reputation for his work:  as Hong Kong convener of the PWC’s political sub-group; as a vice-chairman of the 150-member Preparatory Committee created in 1996 to form the new incoming administration; as a member of the Provisional Legislative Council that replaced the last colonial council and formalized the dismantling process by approving  all the necessary laws soon after July 1, 1997; and then as a member of the first cabinet or Executive Council where he was given special responsibility for housing policy by Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-1997 Chief Executive.  Reportedly at Beijing’s behest, Leung was made convener or leader of the Executive Council in 1999, a position he retained until a few months ago.

His local supporters had proposed Leung in 1996 for the post of Chief Executive, but he declined saying he did not want to be either Hong Kong’s first or second Chief Executive.  His name was raised again beginning in 1999 when Tung, a pro-Beijing businessman who proved an ineffective leader, seemed headed for early retirement.  Better a second term for Tung Chee-hwa than Leung Chun-ying, said democrats at the time.  But again Leung declined and by the time Tung was finally removed, mid-way through his second term, Beijing had hit upon a new solution:  tapping talent from within the old colonial establishment.   Donald Tsang, a career civil servant and at the time Chief Secretary or second in command of the local government, was the man who succeeded Tung in 2005.

Anxious to keep the political atmosphere as calm as possible, and concerned about the 2007 promise to allow a “universal suffrage” election in 2017,  friends of  Beijing began canvassing local opinion leaders in mid-2010 for suggestions as to which 2012 candidate would be most likely to win a second term by universal suffrage public acclamation in 2017.    He has not yet said why he wants the job he forcefully declined twice before but by mid-2010 Leung had let opinion leaders know that he now thought he was the man for the job.

In July 2010, one of those leaders, Allen Lee, entertained listeners at the Hong Kong Club with an hour-long soliloquy on the state of political play in Hong Kong.  Lee founded the pro-business Liberal Party and is now Hong Kong’s most talkative retired politician.  He spoke at length about Beijing’s search for the ideal thru-to-2017 candidate and also about CY Leung’s meticulous efforts to befriend every likely member of the 2012 Election Committee.  But Lee also mentioned the new acceptability criterion that his mainland contacts realized would be necessary even for an elected-by-acclamation candidate.  And therein lays the problem for the man Beijing reportedly favors.


          Henry Tang Ying-yen (Tang Yingnian  唐英年) has a more conventional Hong Kong-elite resume and he had already been promoted to Donald Tsang’s old post as Chief Secretary in preparation for the final step up.  Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Tang is the grandson of a patriotic Shanghai capitalist and son of a Hong Kong textile magnate who acquired the highest of Beijing connections.  Young Henry was educated in the U.S., returned to inherit the family business, and was among the pioneers of Hong Kong-mainland joint ventures.

His political career began when, in 1991 at the age of 39, he was among the last batch of appointed Legislative Councilors.  He then joined Allen Lee’s Liberal Party, and became an elected legislator via one of Governor Patten’s new-style expanded functional constituencies in 1995.  As Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, he nevertheless represented most of the business community in opposing Patten’s reform initiatives.  Hong Kong tycoons have always rejected the idea of political reform and now they had a new excuse:  the governor had infuriated Beijing.  “A confrontational and antagonistic approach is suicidal,” wrote Tang in 1996 (South China Morning Post, May 22).

He joined the Beijing-led pre-1997 preparations, was selected to sit on the Provisional Legislative Council, and became one of Tung Chee-hwa’s first Executive Council appointees.  But unlike CY Leung, Tang moved on to join Tung’s new ministerial system after it was decided that policy bureaus should be headed by political appointees instead of civil servants.  Tang was appointed Financial Secretary in 2003 and Chief Secretary in 2007.


If Hong Kong pollsters had devoted half as much attention to the District Councils election, pan-democrats might have had more warning of what was to come.  But especially after Beijing officials added the new criterion of popular acceptability, interest has focused on the top prize.  In June last year, a Hong Kong University poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post placed CY Leung last among several potential candidates.  Asked who they would vote for if they could, only 8% said Leung; 10% said Tang.  But by October, the responses were Leung 29%; Tang 14% (SCMP, Oct. 17).  By late November, they were Leung, 47%; Tang 23.8%.  Among young people in their 20s, Leung’s support was 62% to Tang’s 20.6% (SCMP, Dec. 8).  Anyone but Henry Tang, they say.  A Baptist University poll in early December found 30% for Leung; 17% for Tang (Ming Pao Daily, Dec. 8).  Another by the Chinese University found 42% for Leung; 28% for Tang (Ming Pao Daily, Dec. 12).

Nor are Beijing officials alone in their dilemma.  The older generation of pro-democracy leaders, who remember the fierce battles of the 1990s, are appalled.  Then chief secretary Anson Chan, who joined the democratic camp after her retirement, said she is “perplexed” by Leung’s popularity and cautioned the public to consider his “track record” before jumping to conclusions. She says he now seems completely different from the person she knew before.  If she were an American politician she would accuse him of pandering.  As it is, the question was only implied not articulated.

Hong Kong is thus learning another old lesson about electoral politics even if the public can’t yet elect its leaders.  For better or worse, voters are likely to give more weight to their immediate concerns than anything else when asked to decide who they want to govern them for the next five years.  Weighing what they know about the two main contenders, people obviously care less about pedigree or past performance and more about problems that need solving now, which explains Leung’s appeal.

He has not just spent the past two years growing orchids in his garden to use as gifts for Election Committee members, according to Allen Lee’s favorite anecdote.  Leung has also been writing an extended series of articles, published in the Chinese press, on matters of community concern with special focus on housing and the growing wealth gap.   When asked by journalists about a third runway for the airport during an unscripted New Year’s Day appearance at the big annual organic farmer’s market, he had a ready answer with something for everyone.  In principle, he replied, Hong Kong needs the third runway but pollution and other environmental concerns that people are raising must also be considered.

In contrast, Henry Tang’s New Year’s Day photo-op was a planned home visit to two families in a neat self-contained middle class constituency and his off-the-cuff comments have only reinforced the out-of-touch elitist image.  They call to mind the famous line from U.S. campaign politics about the elder President George Bush having been “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

So now, thanks to CY Leung’s ambition and political skills and the new acceptability criterion, everyone is faced with an awkward choice.  Besides Beijing, that includes the big names who had already pledged for Henry Tang before the December 11 Election Committee election and pan-democrats who are waiting to hear about specific political issues.   So far neither candidate has had much to say about democratic institution-building, or about Beijing’s pending demand for political security legislation and the threat to political expression it contains.

(Next:  Pan-democrats and the Election Committee)


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