Posted: March 21, 2012
For the first time ever, politics among the power-brokers here is fun to watch, probably because lots more people are getting into the act than the small circle of 1,200 electors who will vote on March 25. This is thanks not only to the controversial candidacy of Leung Chun-ying but also to the new “public acceptability” criterion that Beijing is allowing to play out in the selection of Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive. If the candidates’ popularity rankings can signify and since the public has been promised election by universal suffrage next time around, in 2017, then everyone’s opinions matter. And if public opinion matters, so does the behavior of the candidates and their small-circle electors who are clearly unused to public scrutiny.
This story is not necessarily predestined to have a happy ending. But for now the media is ferreting out secrets with great gusto; Legislative Councilors are demanding answers to questions; and university students are paying for full page newspaper ads (at a discount) as the quickest way of getting the public’s attention. Those in the spotlight fretted at first but now seem resigned to mumble about mud-slinging and muck-raking as inevitable consequences of the demon democracy they have struggled for decades to keep at bay. In fact, the power-brokers regained their balance soon enough and came back swinging during a fast-paced campaign that did not begin in earnest until late January after the Chinese New Year holidays.
Candidate Henry Tang’s womanizing and illegal underground pleasure palace (Mar. 1 post) are already old news, and loyal wife Lisa has probably given one tearful interview too many proclaiming his virtues. Ming Pao Daily (Mar. 9) drew a line under this soap opera phase with an editorial headline that (roughly translated) said “just because Lisa loves Henry blindly, is no reason for the rest of us to do likewise.” Highlights of succeeding rounds featured lobbying by candidate Leung Chun-ying’s campaign team on Henry Tang’s turf where “men of the marshes” hang out. Outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang suffered collateral damage that has left his pious squeaky clean image tarnished by the hospitality of generous tycoons. Then came a surprise development with big long-term implications for Beijing’s so-called United Front strategy. Finally, the public was treated to four hours of freewheeling televised debate by the two real candidates, Tang and Leung, with Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho standing in to speak for pan-democrats.
A GIFT FOR HENRY TANG’S CAMPAIGN
As noted in previous posts, the biggest tycoon property developers who inhabit Sector One on the 1,200-member Election Committee do not trust candidate Leung Chun-ying to maintain Hong Kong business as usual because they think he is too reform-minded. Their spirits revived, however, after the media fixated on a dinner held in a far-off suburban seafood restaurant near the Hong Kong-mainland border. This episode was led initially by the pro-Henry Tang Sing Tao/Standard/Eastweek media group (whose owner is one of Donald Tsang’s tycoon friends).
The Lau Fau Shan dinner venue in the northern New Territories was a fitting place for one of the guests known in euphemistic Chinese terms as a “rivers and lakes person,” in other words, someone who lives on the margins of society (with Triad gangster connections). Also attending the dinner on February 10 were New Territories rural leaders (all Henry Tang supporters) and members of CY Leung’s campaign staff. Rural leaders, too, are worried about CY’s reformist aspirations and the get-together was reportedly held to discuss his platform including the matter of “illegal structures.” These are common additions to suburban New Territories residential buildings and private homes. Rural leaders recently held a rowdy protest and burned in effigy the government official responsible for trying to enforce the rules requiring that illegal structures be demolished. But so intense was the media focus on who invited Kwok Wing-hung aka Shanghai Guy, what business he had there, and who paid the bill, that the public is so far none the wiser about what actually transpired at the dinner.
Kwok is a one-time Triad society leader now known as a businessman who deals in New Territories properties. That rural leaders have regular dealings with him has only been noted in passing and the implications for Henry Tang of having such people in his camp have been ignored altogether. Rather the onus was placed on CY Leung’s campaign for consorting with gangsters, and to disprove Tang’s complaint (formally lodged with the police) that Shanghai Guy’s presence was meant to intimidate.
This was the development that prompted Hong Kong University students to get into the act and buy HK$300,000+ worth of advertising space in several Chinese-language newspapers on March 12. Their aim was to denounce “black gold” (corrupt) politics by calling on CY to disprove the allegations of underworld involvement in his campaign. No one faulted the students for their enthusiasm but just about everyone blamed them, including the student unions of most other universities, for wasting so much money on an impulse that could land them in court for violating Hong Kong’s strict campaign finance regulations. These limit all election-related spending to the candidates and their agents and the ads were clearly election-related.
The whole episode nevertheless provided a great fillip to morale for Henry Tang supporters who had scoffed at CY Leung for being “too perfect,” whereas Tang was a fellow sinner in many respects. Here at last was some mud that seemed to be sticking while they continued to dig for more.
A LOYALIST SAVIOR?
Back in the middle of February when scandal-ridden Henry Tang seemed down and done for, a new “ABC” wind blew up (meaning Anyone But CY, a take-off on last year’s Anyone But Henry slogan). An unlikely alternative appeared suddenly at the same time in the form of loyalist Tsang Yok-sing [Zeng Yucheng], unlikely not because of his pro-Beijing supporters but because some pan-democrats rallied to the idea as well.
Tsang was the founding chairman of what has grown into the main pro-Beijing political party and has, along with younger brother Tsang Tak-sing [Zeng Decheng], been a dedicated loyalist since their student days during the late 1960s Cultural Revolution riots here. Long anathema to pan-democrats, the idea of accepting as Chief Executive someone assumed to belong to Hong Kong’s underground communist party branch needed explaining. Leading Apple Daily editorial writer, Li Yi, was among those who volunteered.
Yes, he wrote, Tsang Yok-sing is no doubt an underground communist party member. But better that than this “mess of a contest between pigs and wolves” (that is, between Tang and Leung). If Tsang were Chief Executive, Beijing would not have to worry about his loyalty and better that than the slavish servile posturing incumbent Donald Tsang has adopted to win Beijing’s trust. Tsang Yok-sing would work for Hong Kong in line with Beijing’s intentions and since he is a traditional leftist himself he would not have to draw lines, as Donald Tsang has done, to favor leftists over democrats. Therefore, wrote Li Yi, since we cannot yet elect our leaders, such a person is the best choice and Tsang Yok-sing is that person (Sharp Daily, Feb. 20, 21, 2012; Apple Daily, July 23, 2011).
Given this new argument, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, Martin Lee, sounds increasingly like yesterday’s man. He was the leading voice of Hong Kong’s democracy movement throughout the 1990s, and he remembers CY Leung’s hard-line institution-building work during those years. All of the last British governor’s political reform initiatives were dismantled at that time and CY was a willing helpmate in that effort. He is Beijing’s man, warns Lee, and with Leung in charge the Chinese Communist Party will rule Hong Kong (Sharp Daily, Mar. 14). For some in the pro-democracy camp, that prospect obviously is no longer something to fear.
If neither Tang nor Leung receive the necessary 601 Election Committee votes during the two ballots allowed on March 25, the election will be replayed with a new round of nominations. The idea took hold so suddenly that Tsang Yok-sing could not put together a campaign in time to meet the February 29 nominations deadline. But if there is a second round, he is thinking seriously about adding his name to the candidates’ list and if he does, some are predicting he would win. By design and by default, the take-over from above and below (via the District Councils) is now well on course to proceed.
Anyone hoping for a change of tone during the two televised debates, on March 16 and 19, was sorely disappointed. The first was for the general public, the second for Election Committee members. The first focused almost entirely on the integrity issue with Henry Tang setting the scene by ostentatiously bowing “before the seven million people of Hong Kong” to apologize for his past behavior. He also pledged to clean up his act as Chief Executive, and then proceeded to make accusations against CY Leung that were calculated to dominate the next day’s headlines. Questions from a studio audience selected to represent the “man-and-woman-in-the-street” did address platform and substantive policy issues like property prices, poverty, the wealth gap, education, etc.* But these were quickly dispatched and then sidelined by the candidates as they quizzed each another. Only Albert Ho emphasized the importance of political reform.
Sure enough, headlines the next day were dominated by Henry Tang’s accusations. His source was confidential conversation within the Executive Council (the Chief Executive’s cabinet) that by custom is never publicized. Tang said he had decided that public interest should override the confidentiality rule that is a holdover from British colonial days. One revelation concerned CY Leung’s statement at a 2003 council meeting after the big July First protest march against the government’s proposed national political security legislation mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Under discussion at the meeting was whether to ram through the legislation despite massive public opposition. Tang did not describe the specific context of Leung’s alleged remarks but apparently arguing in favor of such legislation, Leung said the day would surely come when the government would need the extra authority to use teargas and riot police against protestors. A second allegation concerned his proposal to reduce the renewal time of a local radio station from 12 to three years as punishment for its critical stance toward the government. Leung responded immediately by denying both allegations whereupon Tang accused him point blank of “lying.” The same sequence was repeated during the second debate when Tang made the bizarre claim that he had lodged a complaint with the Independent Commission Against Corruption over Leung’s misrepresentation of the facts. To do so is illegal under Hong Kong’s election ordinance.
Unfortunately for Tang, he has succeeded in deflating Leung’s poll ratings somewhat but the only one to benefit seems to be Albert Ho. After the first debate observers said Tang had actually performed better than expected, although not good enough to make much difference in the public’s impression either of him or his debating skills. After the second debate, a HKU opinion poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post (Mar. 20) found 36% would vote for Leung if they could and 21% for Tang. Both were damaged by the debate, down from 44% and 26% respectively. Albert Ho, on the other hand, doubled his support from 7% to 14%, and Ming Pao Daily (Mar. 20) named him the winner on a debating points decision.
As of yesterday, there was still no clear indication that Beijing officials had made up their minds. As of today there is. According to well-grounded reports, Beijing has shifted its neutral stance and begun lobbying Tang’s Election Committee supporters to switch sides (SCMP, Mar. 21).
CY Leung was roundly criticized for saying at one point that his candidacy had added a new “democratic” dimension to the contest. But in a sense he was right. He was not Beijing’s first choice this time around and he certainly was not the first choice of Sector One tycoons. But he has made a major effort to try and meet the new public acceptability criterion. Whether he can go on to actually win public acceptance remains to be seen. So does the outcome on Sunday. Election Committee members will have two chances to make up their minds. If they fail on the second ballot, which Beijing sources have said repeatedly they do not want … then it will be a whole new ball game. The tentative date for a second round is May 6.
Albert Ho: http://www.dphkweb.org/ce2012/ce_booklet.pdf
Professional Commons analysis: http://www.ceplatform2012.hk/