The close of nominations this week moves the Hong Kong chief executive election campaign into its final and most crucial phase.
Hong Kong is fortunate to have effective individuals competing for the top job who have spent decades serving the public, in the government or in the judiciary.
It is important that the choice is seen to be made by the electorate and their representatives rather than by Beijing. To be sure, the Chinese government has a major stake in the March 26 election, too, but it is in its own best interests not to be seen as tilting the playing field.
Ten years ago, the Chinese government announced that the 2017 elections in Hong Kong “may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage”.
However, in 2014, it decided that candidates would have to be vetted by a nominating committee essentially dominated by Beijing. That is to say, Beijing would decide who could run, and voters would then choose among the candidates.
This choice was soundly rejected by Hong Kong. It sparked the 79-day Occupy Central protest. The Hong Kong legislature voted down the Beijing proposal. As a result, next month, the chief executive will be chosen by an election committee of approximately 1,200 people and not by several million voters.
Previous elections have shown that Beijing’s choice often coincided with that of the public, as shown in opinion polls.
The first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, enjoyed overwhelming popularity when he started his term, as did the second, Donald Tsang. What Hong Kong people object to is not the candidate but Beijing seeking to impose its will on them in an ostensibly free election.
But it seems Beijing can’t help but put its thumb on the scale. In the current election, the Chinese government has repeatedly made it clear that it favors the capable former chief secretary Carrie Lam, sometimes to her embarrassment.
It held up its approval of the resignation of her rival, then Financial Secretary John Tsang, for more than a month while acting on Lam’s resignation in four days. Without such approval, neither one could begin campaigning.
Earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported that two Chinese leaders went to Shenzhen, adjoining Hong Kong, to inform Beijing loyalists that the decision had been made to back Lam. It was reportedly made at a Christmas Day politburo meeting.
Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, also traveled to Shenzhen. He, too, disclosed that Beijing had decided to support Lam. Significantly, he said that it was essential for Hong Kong’s leader to be someone Beijing can trust.
This criterion, that the winning candidate must be someone Beijing trusts, poses an insuperable obstacle to all but the favored candidate. Beijing can tip the scale in any election simply by indicating whom it trusts or not, regardless of the candidate’s level of support within Hong Kong.
Beijing, it seems, has not learned the lesson of the last five years, when Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive it trusted, was not able to govern effectively precisely because he did not enjoy a popular mandate.
Beijing uses carrots as well as sticks. According to candidate wannabe Regina Ip, a legislator who heads the New People’s Party, Beijing offered her a top job if she would drop out of the race. To her credit, she said thanks, but no thanks.
Even worse, a key Beijing adviser is saying that the Chinese government would refuse to appoint anyone other than Lam, regardless of the outcome of the election. Tung, vice chairman of China’s top advisory body, reportedly told a closed-door meeting that Beijing would not appoint the winner of the election to the top post if it deems that person unacceptable. This makes the whole election a farce.
So, Beijing is trying to shape the election’s outcome by threatening to withhold appointment of whoever wins the election unless, in Beijing’s eyes, the “right” candidate wins.
Almost a quarter century ago, the last governor, Chris Patten, quoted a former colonial official as saying: “The Chinese style is not to rig elections, but they do like to know the result before they’re held.” However, it’s difficult to describe what Beijing is doing now as anything other than rigging an election.
Beijing should take its thumb off the scale and allow each candidate to rise or fall on his or her own merits. After all, the next chief executive shouldn’t be someone who needs to rely on Beijing for support to govern Hong Kong.
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