Posted:  March 29, 2012


The biggest handicap for Hong Kong’s democracy movement has always been its lack of precedents and institutional memories.   Before 1997, the colonial governing tradition was all about keeping democracy at bay and the tradition persisted almost to the end, when it was only possible to cobble together a mix of Western-style goals and mainland communist underpinnings.  That left everyone with no footsteps to follow and nothing to point the way forward except a new untested Basic Law constitution and its vague “one country, two systems” formula, designed to last for 50 years from 1997.  Without any other guideposts, everyone at all points along the political spectrum can only learn-by-doing as they propel themselves toward the Basic Law’s ill-defined goals of a government elected by universal suffrage and integration with the mainland system in whatever form it may exist by 2047.  Under the circumstances, last Sunday’s Chief Executive Election laid down two important improvised markers that will be difficult to erase in future elections because the experience of this one will be set if not in stone then at least in the memories of all who participated.

One of those markers was Beijing’s still unexplained decision, announced last July, to allow a new “public acceptability” criterion to guide the choice of Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive (Jan. 4, 2012 post).  The second was the decision of Hong Kong University pollster, Robert Chung, to improvise on the new official criterion and hold a mock on-line election to let people have their say about which candidate they preferred.  The two, Beijing and Robert Chung, were not working in tandem.  Far from it, but they reinforced each other nonetheless.   In the end the original establishment-anointed candidate failed the public acceptability test, and 223,000 people participated in a simulated referendum exercise.  Even better, they used their “vote” to protest the fact that they didn’t have a real one!  Even worse, when it was all over, veteran commentator Albert Cheng predicted that given the result, Hong Kong’s March 25 Chief Executive election was a “nightmare” in the making (South China Morning Post, Mar. 28).


           Actually, it wasn’t just the general public that didn’t have a real vote.  Neither did Election Committee members and the most powerful among them are not very happy about seeing their candidate Henry Tang humiliated in defeat.  Beijing nevertheless kept its word, and also held its peace almost to the very end.  Many members of Hong Kong’s 1,200-person Election Committee are concurrent delegates to the National People’s Congress and its companion honorary body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.  They attended the annual March meetings in expectation of receiving some advance signal but all returned from Beijing empty handed.

The writing was nevertheless on the wall if public acceptability was really to count for anything because Henry Tang’s popularity rating had remained in the doldrums for months.  Unauthorized challenger Leung Chun-ying had bested Tang in every poll dating back to last October.   At that time visitors to Beijing were returning with intimations that both Beijing and Hong Kong’s tycoons had agreed on Henry Tang. But in late December equally well-connected Beijing visitors began reporting a subtle change.  The new message:  central government authorities were comfortable with both candidates and Hong Kong itself must choose between them.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press thereafter gave equal coverage to both and members of the main pro-Beijing political party were granted leave to attend the rallies of either candidate as they chose.  Candidate debates are now part of the standard campaign format here, thanks to the pioneering precedent set by the Civic Party’s Alan Leong in his challenge to Donald Tsang five years ago.  And it was not until after the final televised debate on March 19, when CY Leung emerged from the bruising experience still the public-opinion winner that reports confirmed Beijing had thrown its full weight behind him.  Only then did the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions and the main pro-Beijing political party announce that all their 200+ Election Committee members would vote for Leung.

At that point, pro-Beijing sources also went into overdrive exhorting all Election Committee members not to join some pan-democrats who were agitating to disrupt the process by casting blank votes in protest against the undemocratic small-circle election. These included some who had been willing to nominate Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho, to speak for the democratic cause, but who had all along said they would boycott the actual vote on Election Day.  Members of the pro-business Liberal Party were also threatening to abstain rather than vote for CY Leung.  This would risk a second ballot if neither Leung nor Tang received the 601-vote majority needed to win.  It might also mean an embarrassing second round in May and a winner with his authority much diminished.

Even so, the majority of Henry Tang’s core supporters stood by him although there were not enough of them to deprive Leung of a first-ballot victory.   Election Committee nominations and the final vote:

Nominations (Feb. 29)           Votes (March 25)

CY Leung    305   689
Albert Ho    188     76
Henry Tang    390   285
Abstain/no show     61
Mis-marked/invalid     82
TOTAL 1,193*

* Due to overlapping memberships in some sub-sectors, the actual number of Election Committee members was 1,193.


         Two years ago, Beijing raised a great hue and cry when some pro-democracy politicians decided to stage a de facto referendum in protest over the government’s snail-paced political reform package.  According to Beijing, such popular initiatives are a violation of the communist party’s sovereign right to rule as sole representative of the people.  Beijing authorities therefore labeled the 2010 mock referendum a “blatant challenge” to the central government’s authority.

Undeterred by the memory of 2010 (or more likely inspired by it), Hong Kong University pollster Robert Chung announced late last year that he would try to arrange another mock referendum (Ming Pao Daily, Dec. 4, 2011).  He was then helping pan-democrats set up their on-line street-corner primary that they used to select a candidate to represent them in the Chief Executive election campaign (Jan. 16 post).  His idea was to extend the experience and give everyone a chance to vote on all the candidates.  Better that many people should actually make the effort to vote, he said, than for a few hundred to tell us their opinions on the phone.

Unlike the 2010 experience, however, Beijing and the Hong Kong government did not launch a full-scale effort to obstruct the plan as he went about soliciting donations to finance it and arranged for back-up polling sites in public spaces around town.  He had only to suffer another sustained blast from the pro-Beijing press, which shifted its focus from Professor SING Ming’s political transgressions to revive the long-smoldering loyalist grievances against Robert Chung (Feb. 6 post).  Since late December, some 90 critical columns and commentaries have been published accusing him of everything from liaising with British intelligence to performing on cue for his “American  masters.”   Beijing’s Hong Kong representative Liaison Office also ignored the “one country, two systems” strictures against local political interference and spearheaded the media barrage laid down against him.

He had planned to hold the referendum on Friday, March 23, for Hong Kong Identity Card-carrying residents only, asking which of the three Chief Executive candidates they preferred.  He hoped for 50,000 participants and planned to announce the results that same evening.   The anti-referendum media campaign receded as Election Day neared and the exercise seemed set to proceed uneventfully … until two local hackers transformed it into a great success.  They were soon located and arrested by the commercial crimes bureau but not before they had succeeded in blocking the online voting website for most of the day.

Additionally, however, 17 cardboard-box polling stations had been set up around town, like those pioneered by pan-democrats in January for their street-corner primary, to accommodate people who preferred doing it the old-fashioned way.   So instead of one day, the mock poll carried on for two, thousands of extra paper ballots were hastily printed, and people  —  men, women, old, and young  —  responded to the provocation by joining the enormous lines that snaked around the 17 polling stations for most of Saturday.  Final turnout was 222,990.  The results:  

CY Leung:  17.8%

Henry Tang:  16.3%

Albert Ho:  11.4%

Abstain:  54.6

HKU POP final regular opinion poll:  CY, 35%; Tang, 19%; Ho, 14%; none of the three, 32% (Apple Daily, Mar. 25).


So the unthinkable has happened.  Maybe except for CY Leung himself, until recently no one really thought that Henry Tang, favored by Beijing and the tycoons, would not be Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive.  They were planning for a safe pair of hands and a seamless transition from one post-colonial administration to the next, where all the sacred cows and vested interests would be carefully placated and preserved.  Now everything is uncertain because except for his old cold image and the 180-degree difference in his new outgoing accommodating campaign personality, CY Leung is unknown, untested, and distrusted.

He is not just a self-made man but also seems to be self-taught as well at least when it comes to politics.  Certainly no one has ever accused him of having British or American mentors.  He majored at school in property surveying, now known as real estate management, but his style on the campaign trail was more like contemporary American politician. He said early on that the “general public” was the new player in this year’s Chief Executive election and behaved accordingly.   He understands the need for rapid-fire direct responses to critical accusations, which is rare here.   And his remarks on Sunday had a familiar Obama-like ring that is also rare.  Commenting on his victory, Leung said that henceforth “there won’t be any Tang camp, Ho camp nor Leung camp.  There is only one camp  —  the Hong Kong camp.”

He also said he is not now nor has he ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party, a direct public denial that none of Hong Kong’s usual “traditional leftist” suspects have ever issued.  That includes Tsang Yok-sing who enjoyed a few days in the campaign spotlight last month (Mar. 21 post).  But whether Leung’s election was really precedent-setting or just the prelude to a nightmare will depend on whether he governs with his new personality or the old  —  and how the chief players respond.

In fact, it will probably be precedent-setting regardless since the thousands who turned out to cast their mock ballots are sure to demand more of a say and more representative candidates.    That can become a nightmare scenario if the aspirations are blocked and it may look like a nightmare even if they are met, depending on how long it takes everyone to accept the unfamiliar rules of  electoral combat.  So far that lesson is proving hard to learn.

For example, even though he met the new public acceptability criterion in comparison to his main rival and worked hard to succeed in that respect, much concern is now being expressed about CY Leung’s ability to govern given his “low” approval rating.  This is being compared to the honeymoon highs enjoyed by Hong Kong’s first two post-1997 Chief Executives at the beginning of their first terms.  But the situation now is completely different.  There were other contestants in 1996 and 2006, yet Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang were officially anointed by Beijing long before the Election Committee rubber-stamped their candidacies.

In contrast, 2012 produced a genuine contest even if it was only between two pro-establishment candidates.   If a more varied slate is allowed in the future, the winners will no doubt emerge from the scuffle with something less than sky-high approval ratings.  And if the tenures of Tung and Tsang are any indication, high hopes at the start are no guarantee of what happens later on.

Much is also being made of the unseemingly “mud-slinging” that for the first time featured in a Chief Executive contest.  But there really were secrets that the public needed to know and more sober voices (even old conservative ones) are saying the media was just doing its job when it dug for months to uncover the hidden fact of Henry Tang’s illegal basement.  The link between gangsters, rural leaders, and the candidates’ campaigns needed to be aired as well, and HKU students have already learned the hard way about looking more carefully behind sensational headlines before leaping to conclusions.

Many additional lessons will have to be absorbed, however, if Albert Cheng’s vision of Armageddon is to be avoided.   Some of the challenges have been more clearly articulated in recent days than they were during all the past months of campaigning — perhaps because the possibility of a CY Leung victory had seemed so remote.  Just before the election, a group of self-proclaimed senior civil servants publicized an anonymous letter they addressed to the presumptive winner demanding guarantees that their political neutrality will be respected.  They have their doubts.

The candidate had said all along that Beijing’s pledge of a universal suffrage election for the Chief Executive in 2017 was his as well.  He has even said he plans to be a candidate himself.  But when finally challenged after his election specifically on how candidates might be nominated in 2017, he deflected the question.  He had said repeatedly during the campaign that passing Article 23 national political security legislation is Hong Kong’s “constitutional duty.”  But when challenged directly, he still declined to elaborate on how he thinks the public “consensus” he promised to seek might be achieved or what he means by consensus.

Leung’s pre-election public acceptability ratings were achieved partly by his tireless campaigning and partly by his skillful choice of words, and also because of the causes he championed.  He had long supported the new minimum wage law and is now an advocate of standard working hours, both of which the business community has fought tooth and nail.  He says the problem of housing for the poorest of Hong Kong’s citizens should be more actively addressed and social welfare advocates rallied to his promises as well  —  all of which explain why  business people regard him with such profound suspicion.

Yet during the campaign he spoke confidently about the need for “management.”  Hong Kong is facing a range of tough problems and choices but with better management, he liked to say, solutions can be found.  Presumably he was referring to the ability to balance competing interests and accommodate diverse demands, and to other managerial skills he demonstrated during his campaign.  IF he can respond to all the above political, economic, and social challenges accordingly, Leung might just survive to contest the 2017 election for a second term.  But some, like Albert Cheng, are not willing to give him even the benefit of the doubt.  Neither are other opinion leaders like retired civil servant Anson Chan and veteran democrat Martin Lee.

Cheng predicts that half-a-million people will likely be calling for Leung’s resignation on July First, the day he takes office, and the Civil Human Rights Front that organizes the annual July First democracy marches is already preparing.  Front leaders anticipate a turnout of 10,000 for this coming Sunday’s demo —  to mark the first week since Leung’s election.  They will be marching to Beijing’s Liaison Office in protest against its violation of the “one country, two systems” ideal by interfering in the election and helping to orchestrate his victory.*

* April 2, update:  Turnout looked pretty close to 10,000.  As a rough rule of thumb, if the police estimate is 5,300 and organizers claim 15,000, then 10,000 should be about right.  All the main pro-democracy parties were represented in the march plus large contingents of students and young people.  Veteran street protestor “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung was there, leading a chant for the Chief Executive-designate to resign, but it wasn’t really necessary.  The younger generation is carrying forward the arguments on its own.  Their slogans were not particularly polite but the message was loud and clear, echoing the organizers’ call to march:  “The wicked wolf has come to power; Hong Kongers are angry.  Protest Central Liaison Office interference.”

         The protest marked a significant upward adjustment of the main target and paralleled the new direct participation by Beijing’s Liaison Office personnel in the political debate here.  It has always been common knowledge that Beijing makes the decision on who can be Chief Executive and on all the principal officials.  Nevertheless, for the first time a new public message of open defiance was reflected in several lead slogans:  “No to the central government’s imperial orders; give us true universal suffrage.”  “Protest Central Liaison Office rule in Hong Kong; protect one-country, two-systems.”  Maybe CY Leung is just what pan-democrats need to re-energize their flagging movement.  And maybe a re-energized democacy movement is just the test that he needs as well.


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