Posted:  March 1, 2012

 

During the past 20 years, local democracy activists have used every argument they could think of to make the case for “genuine” universal suffrage elections.  In response, people liked to joke that Beijing would never allow elections unless it could guarantee beforehand who would win.  This logic inspired the intricacies of the Chief Executive Election Committee, now with 1,200 members, which was designed in such a way as to make a pro-democracy candidate’s victory impossible.

The only problem, from Beijing’s perspective, is that officials there cannot actually mandate which pro-establishment candidate should win because the communist party is not yet in open control here.  What’s more, Beijing is pledged to an ongoing course of reform that anticipates “public acceptability” (Jan. 4  post).  This is a new criterion added recently, without fanfare or explanation, presumably because Beijing has now learned its lesson:  Hong Kongers can be very troublesome when provoked and since hard-line mainland-style political security laws have not yet been introduced here, the city can become difficult to govern at times like now, when public expectations do not mesh with government performance.  Elections may be designed to misrepresent but the mass media and mass protests are still routinely invoked as the last lines of defense.

The situation was tailor-made for disruption and disrupted it is, thanks to the candidate Beijing had anointed in consultation with Hong Kong’s main movers and shakers who dominate Sector One (business and finance) on the Election Committee (Jan. 16  post).    Democrats see this sector as the hard core within what they deride as a “small-circle” exercise, otherwise known as the Election Committee election.   Sector One tycoons remain essentially as hostile to political reform today as in the mid-1980s when the British belatedly introduced it.  But all the pro-democracy arguments under the sun could not do more to discredit the exercise than the hapless candidate Beijing and the local big business establishment tapped as the person best suited to safeguard their economic and political interests.

On March 25, the committee is scheduled to endorse a new Chief Executive in the last such exercise before some form of yet-to-be-defined universal suffrage is introduced in 2017.   The official hope was, reportedly, that whoever succeeds Donald Tsang on July 1, 2012 would do such a good job that he could easily carry on for a second term,  thereby allowing Beijing to have its cake in 2017 and eat it too (that is, allow the long-delayed universal suffrage reform and elect the correct candidate).  Instead, candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen (Tang Yingnian 唐英年) may not even last out the month and if he does, no one wants to bet on the likelihood of him still being around in 2017.

TABLOID FODDER

         Poor Henry.  In the past few months his prospects have only gone from bad to worse.  The younger post-1980s generation that gained sudden fame in 2010 with a series of spontaneous protests was the first to raise the slogan “anyone but Henry Tang.”  This was because he seemed not so much opposed as completely oblivious to the causes they held dear.  His first sin in their eyes was to dismiss concerns over the lack of good job prospects and affordable housing, and the growing wealth gap.   With his aimless trademark grin, he said everyone should just work hard and aim to become as rich as Hong Kong’s richest tycoon, Li Ka-shing.  What kind of world does that guy inhabit, they asked.   We don’t want to be rich as Croesus.  We just want to live in a city with more equitable opportunities for all.

Of course, they knew what kind of world he lived in, but this was not just another rich man’s playboy son (Jan. 4 post).  He was the favorite of his own small circle and slated to become Hong Kong’s Chief Executive responsible for making political, economic, and social decisions that would affect the lives of everyone for possibly the next 10 years.   He needed to be discredited in more ways than one if their opposition was to have any impact, especially after reliable news reports last September that central government leaders in Beijing had indeed decided to endorse him as their preferred candidate.

In anticipation of what was surely to come, Tang began his campaign with a preemptive strike.  Rather than wait for the inevitable salacious stories about his love life to surface, he stepped forward last October to admit that while he may have “strayed” in the past, he was now reformed and contrite, with loyal wife Lisa Kuo Yu-chin by his side to say she forgave him.  Since all rich men are expected to stray and the wives to keep up appearances especially when the public interest is involved, his volunteer confession seemed to work  —  even as tea-table gossip continued to circulate about more than one mistress, an illegitimate child hidden away in Paris, and so on.

Meanwhile, clumsy efforts by Tang supporters to help him and discredit the other more popular candidate, Leung Chun-ying  (Jan. 4 post), did little to harm him or boost Tang’s poll numbers until a mysterious government press release in early February.  It concerned what seemed to be a relatively minor 2001 conflict-of-interest issue on a major public works project associated with Leung.  Who was responsible for the next leak to follow after that is also not known.  But since it contained unauthorized building plans for a Tang family property, and since CY Leung has strong support among his fellow surveyors and architects, the source can be imagined.

Unauthorized additions to residential buildings are common here, given the lack of adequate living space.  In recent years, the authorities have tried to improve enforcement of building codes beginning in the poorest neighborhoods where some serious damage has been done by pieces of dilapidated buildings falling on people’s heads.  But the community is no longer as passive as it was in Henry’s day.  If poor people must remove their illegal structures, others must do so as well.  Warnings to officials were issued last summer after some prominent persons were named and shamed.  The only people actively resisting are suburban New Territories residents (whose leaders have all declared for Henry Tang).

Ming Pao Daily News had been trying without success to confirm the rumors since last October.   Finally a few people began to talk (Feb. 13).  Sharpe Daily (爽報 ), Apple Daily’s new afternoon Cantonese giveaway, claimed to have procured the blueprints (Feb. 14, 15).  Tang’s illegal structure, unregistered and therefore untaxed, was a 2,400 square-foot basement allegedly fitted out as a recreation complex complete with wine cellar, wine tasting room, mini-theater, sauna, etc. (Ming Pao, Feb. 16).  Dubbed his “underground palace,” the basement is larger than the vast majority of Hong Kong apartments.   Building inspectors confirmed the size but refused comment on the furnishings.

Worse than the transgression itself, however, was Tang’s response. Having denied all knowledge right up until the day before, he then blamed his wife, still standing by his side, at their tearful Feb. 16 afternoon press conference.  He said that during a “low point” in their marriage, he had transferred his shares in the property to her and she did what she liked with the house, which is next door to their main family residence.  The community accepted his initial transgressions as par for the course.  Boys will be boys.  But this was different.   Shameless miserable wretch screamed the headlines, reflecting the general sense of disgust for a man who would allow his wife to be further humiliated in this way when he had just said days before that he would accept responsibility for any problems with their properties.  Even the once-staid South China Morning Post, now under new editorial management, joined the outcry to demand he disqualify himself as a candidate without waiting to see if the public forgave him as his loyal supporters continue to hope.

LONE WOLF LEUNG  

           The pro-democracy media months ago gave derisive nicknames to the two main candidates that have stuck:  Mr. Piggy for Tang’s amiable indolent personality and character; Wolf Man for CY Leung as someone slightly sinister, stern, confident, and ambitious. The caricature nevertheless worked to his advantage after Leung emerged as an articulate candidate who had learned to speak thoughtfully about current public concerns.  He might be just what Hong Kong needs, by comparison with his chief competitor who continues to give the impression that he spends all his spare time enjoying his underground pleasures.

Unfortunately for Leung, however, Sector One luminaries also regard him as a wolf in their midst and they are not impressed when others see in him a man of strong character and firm principles.  They say he’s a loner, a self-made man, someone who avoids their wine-tasting social rituals, owes them nothing, and spends too much time at home working on his policy papers … in other words, a man who can’t be trusted to carry on Hong Kong business as usual.

What’s more, no one seems to know who in Beijing might still be promoting his candidacy.  Someone or no one?  Either way the prospect is unsettling.   Ten years ago he had patrons in high places including Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing (Jan. 4 post).  But it looks like maybe this time he just decided to come out on his own, introduce himself to the public, and wait for Beijing leaders to look his way again.

Miriam Lau, who heads the pro-business Liberal Party, explained in somewhat different terms during a recent TV interview.  She said she could not speak for the tycoons.  But her small-and-medium-size enterprise constituents all prefer Henry Tang because they know him.  He was once a Liberal Party member himself, and he represents “stability.”  CY Leung is an unknown quantity and the business community fears uncertainty.  She was discreet.  Former leader James Tien told journalists, repeatedly, that party members would sooner cast blank ballots than vote for CY Leung.

OUR MAN THROUGH THICK AND THIN

All the scrutinizing about who in Beijing might or might not be promoting Leung’s unusual candidacy (former leader Jiang Zemin, current leader Hu Jintao, future leader Xi Jinping) will matter in the end when Beijing makes the final decision.  But after CY began making his mark on the opinion polls and Henry Tang failed to pull ahead, Beijing leaders through local surrogates let it be known that “public acceptability” (still undefined) did indeed signify and they aimed to let the contest play itself out.   In recognition of the two officially approved candidates, Tang and Leung, the 200+ Election Committee members belonging to the main pro-Beijing political party and its Federation of Trade Unions ally were allowed to nominate one or the other according to their own preferences.

As a result, between now and March 25, Hong Kong will have something as close to a Chief Executive election campaign as circumstances allow, with all eyes focusing on the 1,200-member Election Committee.  But the interim verdict, when the formal February 14-29 nomination period ended, said as much about the deficiencies of the Election Committee method of choosing a leader as about those of the candidates themselves.

All three candidates hastened to lock in their nominees before too many pledged Election Committee members could change their minds.  Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho was first off the block, on Feb. 14, satisfied with 183 signatures from the 205 pan-democrats elected to the committee in early December.  He was later able to add a few more names but there had been too much talk about helping out CY Leung in case of need to risk any delay.  In the end, for better or worse, he didn’t need them.  He made the nomination threshold (150 signatures) with plenty to spare:  292.

Henry Tang’s nominees began slipping away after the underground pleasure palace story broke and he had to abandon his plans for a grand photo-op finish, but he remained on his front-runner perch.  Tang submitted his 378 nominations on Feb. 20, without fanfare and pledging to give his all to the task of rebuilding his reputation, a wise promise since the Liberal Party’s signatures came with a warning.  The party announced that its members would not vote for him on March 25 if his opinion poll rankings remained below 50% because that would indicate he had failed the public acceptability test. Thousands would take to the streets again and the city would become ungovernable again as in 2003.

Most of the big name tycoons and property developers nevertheless stood by him together with their conglomerate representatives including five from Li Ka-shing’s family enterprises; five from Jardine Matheson; nine from the Kwok family’s Sun Hung Kai enterprises; and godfather of the famous Hong Kong-Macau bridge, Gordon Wu.  Others included 28 suburban New Territories leaders (probably hoping to retain their illegal structures); 35 representatives from culture and sports; 35 from the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference; 26 religious leaders; and 14 Legislative Councilors (Ming Pao, Feb. 22; SCMP, Feb. 23).

Leung’s strongest support came from Sector Three:  labor, agriculture, and fisheries; plus his own fellow surveyors and architects in Sector Two.  He was not without Sector One supporters, however, and the biggest name among them is property magnate Ronnie Chan Chi-chung.  His signature may bode ill for pan-democrats if Leung wins since no one among the tycoons has said and written more about the evils of Western-style democracy than Ronnie Chan.  The tally as of Feb. 24 (Ming Pao):

Election Com. Sector Tang Leung Ho
First:  Bus., Industry 169   58     0
Second: Professions   28   59 107
Third: Labor, etc.   37   97   59
Fourth: Political 144   78   19
                          Totals 378 292 185

The final tally as of Feb. 29:  390 for Tang, 305 for Leung, and 188 for Ho.   The latest HK University opinion poll, conducted on Feb. 27-28, gave Tang 17.7%; Leung 51.2%; Ho 13.3%.

So the old truism that “the tycoons have always run Hong Kong and always will” has hit a snag.  Their carefully choreographed small circle routine is not such a safe bet after all.  Now, it seems, they must consider public opinion before making their final choice and the public doesn’t think much of their favorite but they are afraid of the alternative.  They have also just realized that if too many blank ballots are cast on March 25, neither candiate may win the necessary 601 votes on the first ballot, or even the second.  Or even worse,  pan-democrats’ 205 Election Committee members might be able to cast the deciding votes for them.

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