Hong Kong's chief executive elections

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Hong Kong's chief executive elections

Leung Chun-yin’s victory in chief executive elections likely to move Hong Kong closer into Beijing’s orbit An unusual election On 25 March as Leung Chun-yin was declared Hong Kong’s Chief Executive-elect, protestors outside the city’s only polling station in Wan Chai chanted “down with small-circle elections” and “we want direct elections immediately”. The protest was about a lack of democracy and frustration over an election in which around 1,200 people, out of a population of seven million, were allowed to vote. What’s more, the majority of the electors simply vote for the candidate preferred by Beijing. Since the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997 there have been four elections. In these races Beijing’s preferred candidate, though the mainland officially denies interfering, has been known from the start. This contest was different. The central government switched its initial backing for Henry Tang Ying-ying, a former high-ranking civil servant, to Mr Leung, in the final weeks of the campaign. Tang, who counted on the support of Hong Kong’s business elite, including most of the city’s property developers, lost popular support after allegations surfaced of marital infidelity and the illegal construction of a 2,000 square-foot wine cellar in a property owned by his wife. The latter scandal is a very serious matter in Hong Kong where the average family makes-do with a few hundred square feet of living space. The resulting dip in public support for Tang, however, is not likely to have swayed Beijing’s power brokers to support Mr Leung, or CY Leung as he is more commonly known. While Beijing has suggested that public approval is a prerequisite to govern in Hong Kong, neither candidate enjoyed genuine popular support, as was shown by the results of a University of Hong Kong mock election two days before the real one. In this simulated vote, around 50 percent of voters cast blank ballots. The PRC’s ultimate decision to back Leung is perhaps a result of a power struggle ahead of the mainland’s own leadership transition in the autumn. Leung is a reformer and is said to have the support of the Communist Youth League, the powerbase of Chinese president Hu Jintao. The recent ousting of former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, which Risk Advisory’s Nancy Zhang discusses on page 7, is evidence of back-room deal-making as competing factions jockey for positions in Zhongnanhai. Beijing’s man in Hong Kong Beijing’s role in Hong Kong’s chief executive elections guarantees a compliant chief but Leung must balance the two sides of ‘one country, two systems’, an idea that has guided policymaking and underpinned Hong Kong-Beijing relations since 1997. CY Leung’s background, however, suggests that he is more likely to yield to pressure from Beijing to emphasize ‘one country’, as opposed to ‘two systems’, the side most Hong Kongers would prefer he championed to safeguard their unique political rights and freedoms. Leung’s relationship with the mainland stretches back to before the handover of Hong Kong. At age 31 he was appointed to a committee which helped design Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a mini-constitution which provides the foundation for Hong Kong’s laws. He was later appointed to an advisory group set up by Beijing to function as a shadow government in Hong Kong until the handover in 1997. As a result of these high profile appointments, Leung has been dogged by allegations that he is a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One former member of the (formerly underground) CCP in Hong Kong has been reported to say that it is inconceivable that Leung would have been appointed by Beijing to any government body unless he was a member of the CCP. Leung has denied these charges, which if true, would ironically bar him from holding high office in Hong Kong. The long shadow of Article 23 In his victory speech Leung declared: ‘I am making a solemn pledge here to the seven million people in Hong Kong: when I assume office, there will be absolutely no changes to the freedoms they enjoy now’. Perhaps it is cynical to say but such an opening gambit is not likely to instil trust in any politician, let alone one known for his close ties to Beijing. Indeed, one test of Leung in his first term might be his response to renewed pressure from Beijing to pass a national security law, which was attempted and failed once before in Hong Kong. In 2002, legalisation was proposed in Hong Kong to meet the requirements of Article 23 of the Basic Law requiring the city to enact laws to protect national security.  The proposed legislation was controversial and elements of it would have reportedly enabled the police to conduct warrantless searches, enact curbs to freedom of speech, and ban organisations Beijing considers subversive. In Hong Kong where political apathy generally prevails – perhaps a result of being denied democracy under the British and now by the PRC – the controversial legislation mobilised the largest protests the city had seen since 1989, when people marched in sympathy with the Tiananmen Square protestors. As a result of the protests, the legislation was shelved and the then-Secretary of Security resigned her post. Leung has been coy about whether he will re-introduce national security legislation. He has said that resurrecting the legislation is not in his ‘working plans’ but nor has he completely ruled out restarting them. During the election campaign Tang alleged that Leung advocated the use of force against the protestors in 2003. The claim is unverified but if true may suggest that Leung would be willing to force the legislation through in the face of public protest. When the security law was tabled in 2003, ten banks reportedly told Hong Kong officials, quietly, that the law’s implications for the free flow of information would lead to the exodus of the city’s banks. The security law, if reintroduced along the same lines as in 2003, might therefore pose a risk to Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre. It remains to be seen how Leung will balance his loyalty to Beijing and his promise to preserve the unique political rights and freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong. This year’s political transition on the mainland, the most turbulent since 1989, underscores the weakness and the very viability of the Beijing political model in the medium term. And it will give citizens of Hong Kong cause for concern if Leung attempts to move the city closer to Beijing’s political orbit. Brendan McGloin Senior Associate, Hong Kong
Published: 17th April 2012