It is hard to be optimistic over the election for the chief executive and believe that the winner will be able to unite a sharply divided city and make the government function as it should.
On the surface, the campaign here is like that in a democratic country — candidates seeking support from the public, regular opinion polls and an intense debate in the media and among ordinary people.
And there will be a referendum among the public on the candidates, organised by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, one of the co-founders of Occupy Central. Interest in the battle is as strong as in many western countries.
But only 1,194 people will choose the winning candidate. Among them, many, perhaps most, will vote according to instructions from Beijing.
On a radio program on Tuesday, Michael Tien, deputy chairman of the New People’s Party, said that many of the 1,194 had received phone calls asking them to nominate particular candidates.
Even two months before the vote, offices of the central government here have been telling Election Committee members who to choose, according to reports in the media here. All indications point to Carrie Lam as the preferred choice of Beijing.
Her application to resign from office was approved in a matter of days, while that of her likely main rival, John Tsang, took a whole month. She was also the one chosen by Beijing to present the project of the Palace Museum to Hong Kong.
The pro-Beijing media has presented her in glowing terms as experienced, disciplined, knowledgeable and competent.
In addition, Elsie Leung, vice-chairman of the Basic Law Committee, said on Saturday that there were too many candidates and some should consider their chances of winning before they ran.
This was evidently a reference to Regina Ip and Judge Woo Kwok-hing. Beijing’s preference is for a race with two or three horses and for one to win by a large margin that would give him or her the most legitimacy.
All this is evidence of the “hidden hand”. Worse still is the belief that the choice of CE is in fact made by one person — President Xi Jinping. One of the main characteristics of his rule since November 2012 has been a concentration of power rejected by his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who preferred a collective form of leadership.
Xi certainly has to approve the party secretaries, governors and mayors of the major cities of China. Equally, he would insist on choosing the leader of so important a city as Hong Kong. So, in reality, the next CE will be selected not by the seven million city residents, nor even the members of the Election Committee, but one person who has never been here.
Another issue is the choice of candidates. Hong Kong is a city of abundant talent in many fields. But the four people running consist of one retired judge and three civil servants.
Civil servants have advantages; they know well the running of the government and how to deal with Beijing. Each of the four has had a distinguished career in public service. No one questions their administrative competence or their honesty. These are very valuable qualities.
But a lifetime in government trains you to carry out policies rather than implement new ones or make major reforms. You are too aware of the difficulties of doing something new. The four are not representative of the rich talent, entrepreneurship and intelligence of the Hong Kong population.
The two biggest challenges facing the new CE are the deep division in society in politics and opinion and the deadlock in governance that has resulted from it. Good projects have been delayed or abandoned because of it; the proposed Palace Museum in Hong Kong may be the next casualty, despite the enormous benefits, commercial and cultural, it would bring.
So the winner should be someone who can reconcile the two sides and bring them together; who can persuade the public that he or she represents their interests as well as those of Beijing; and bring the democratic side into the policy-making progress. Then the two sides can work together to accomplish the social, infrastructure, cultural and economic projects the city needs.
It is hard to see any of the four candidates being able to do this. The campaign will be intense and confrontational and the legitimacy of the winner will be narrow.
It would be nice to be optimistic about 2017 – but it is difficult.
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