23 February 2019
Zhang Dejiang, China's parliament chief, has said the central government enjoys "substantive and constitutional" power to appoint Hong Kong's chief executive, regardless of who wins the election. Photo: Xinhua
Zhang Dejiang, China's parliament chief, has said the central government enjoys "substantive and constitutional" power to appoint Hong Kong's chief executive, regardless of who wins the election. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing would be wise to show restraint over HK election

Beijing is worried that the front-runner in the Hong Kong chief executive election, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, may face difficulties in governing if she ends up with more votes but remains significantly less popular compared to her main rival, former financial secretary John Tsang.

This appears to be the rationale for Beijing’s open interference in the Hong Kong election, even though Lam herself has warned that such favoritism by Beijing may be counterproductive, making her vulnerable to the charge of being “Beijing’s candidate”.

Wang Guangya, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, has said that it is “reasonable” that the central government should “be concerned” about the election. Yet being concerned is one thing, open interference is another.

Wang has laid down four criteria for the next chief executive: Someone who loves China and Hong Kong; who has Beijing’s trust; who has the ability to govern; and who has the support of Hong Kong people.

But Chinese actions seem to make it clear that “support of Hong Kong people” isn’t as important as “Beijing’s trust”. In fact, the more Beijing tries to twist arms in Hong Kong to line up support for Lam, the more likely it is to generate resentment to her candidacy.

Polls indicate a gap between the two leading contestants, with Tsang consistently ahead by a substantial margin in terms of public popularity. In fact, Beijing’s machinations may have resulted in Lam’s increased political isolation, with the public seeing her as “Beijing’s choice” rather than as the most experienced and qualified candidate in the race, which she is.

Beijing’s obsession with Lam’s votes from the roughly 1,200-member Election Committee members in the March 26 contest is misguided. Of course, squeaking through with a minimum of 601 votes may not look that impressive, but if Beijing’s aim is to strengthen Lam’s hand as chief executive by increasing her majority, pressuring committee members to vote for Lam is short-sighted: it will be widely believed that, but for Beijing’s pressure, she would have gained far fewer votes. That alone will be a major impediment to her governance.

As the South China Morning Post has reported, “Hongkongers generally favor Tsang in the race but accept that Lam stands a better chance of winning Beijing’s blessing.”

That is to say, Beijing’s blessing outweighs the support of the Hong Kong people. This breeds cynicism since people in general realize that the winner is not going to be the person supported by the people, but one who has the backing of Beijing. It is the very definition of a rigged election.

Beijing knows this, but keeps defending its rigging of the system. In fact, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese parliament, has told Hong Kong deputies that Beijing has the right to “step in” and be involved in the election.

Zhang, who oversees Hong Kong affairs for the Communist Party of China, has said that the central government enjoys a “substantive and constitutional” power to appoint Hong Kong’s chief executive, regardless of who wins the election. The central government, he has said, is not a rubber stamp and can refuse to appoint the winner.

But the real question is not one of power or of right, but of wisdom. Is it wise for Beijing to insert itself into a Hong Kong election so as to influence the outcome?

After all, Beijing had the right on July 1, 1997, the day it gained sovereignty over Hong Kong, to integrate the city into the People’s Republic of China, but it chose not to do so. Instead, it decided to restrain its rights through the formulation of the “one country, two systems” model.

The only way such a concept could work is if Beijing restrained the exercise of its own rights to allow “two systems” to flourish.

This was true in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping unveiled the model. It continues to be the case today.

The day Beijing decides to insist on its rights rather than on the restraint of such rights is the day when “one country, two systems” begins to weaken and, eventually, die.

Five years ago, when the last chief executive election was held, it was in effect a race between former chief secretary Henry Tang and former Exco convener Leung Chun-ying. Beijing’s sentiments were clear: it backed Tang before shifting to Leung amid a welter of scandals. But at about this point in the race, Wang Guangya delivered a quiet message: both CE candidates were acceptable to Beijing.

It is high time Wang conveyed a similar message this time around.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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