Date
28 June 2017
Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam said she, too, wants more democracy but “why don’t we start with the easier subjects first?” Photo: HKEJ
Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam said she, too, wants more democracy but “why don’t we start with the easier subjects first?” Photo: HKEJ

China makes Hong Kong election a mere formality

As expected, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor triumphed in Sunday’s election, winning 777 votes from the 1,194-member Election Committee to become Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

She will be the first woman to lead Hong Kong since its emergence as a free port in the 19th century.

Lam will take office on July 1, the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong under China’s formula of “one country, two systems”, with the former British colony enjoying a “high degree of autonomy”.

Her victory was decisive, with former financial secretary John Tsang winning 365 votes and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing securing 21.

Lam has worked for the government since 1980, rising to the second-ranking position in 2012.

Her ability is undisputed but, as rival Tsang pointed out, hard work alone doesn’t make a political leader. Her popularity ratings during the campaign were substantially lower than his.

Political support from Beijing, which wields significant influence over the Election Committee, ensured her victory.

But it also highlights her greatest vulnerability because she was seen as “Beijing’s favored candidate”.

According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the chief executive “shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee” and “appointed by the Central People’s Government”.

China has made it clear that the appointment is not a formality; it can refuse to appoint the winner.

Earlier this month, China’s third-ranking leader, Zhang Dejiang, asserted that Beijing has the right to “step in” to the territory’s leadership contest.

And “stepping in” begins with the nomination process and ends on election day.

Thus, legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, whose government career began even earlier than Lam’s and who heads her own political party, failed to get the required 150 nominations from the Election Committee.

Beijing was concerned that Ip would siphon votes from Lam. It wanted to ensure that Lam would win in a landslide.

Chinese officials said during the campaign that a chief executive must possess four qualities: to love China and Hong Kong, to be trusted by Beijing, to be capable of governing, and to be supported by the Hong Kong people.

Of these four, Beijing’s trust is key. As the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said on Saturday: “If the chief executive doesn’t have the central authorities’ full trust, Hong Kong will not be able to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.”

“Popularity certainly is important, but maintaining a good working relationship with the central government is also crucial,” said Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, a few days earlier.

“If the chief executive has a better working relationship and cooperation with the central government, it will create miracles for Hong Kong and reduce a lot of unnecessary disputes.”

What this means is that Beijing in effect gets to pick the winning candidate by making clear its preference.

To carry this one step further, it suggests that the election itself is merely a formality to produce the winner China has chosen.

In that case, the logical conclusion would seem to be that Beijing should just declare the winner after the nomination process without Hong Kong going through a costly, time-consuming election.

While Beijing has gone to great lengths to ensure the success of Lam – a credible candidate fully capable of winning under her own steam – by intruding into the election, Beijing has created huge problems that she will have to face in office.

Right after her victory, Lam delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of unity moving forward. She thanked all the other candidates and said her priority was “to heal the divide” and “unite our society to move forward”.

But that is easier said than done. The rift within society is vast and it is unclear that other parties will agree to work with her, especially pro-democracy lawmakers, who make up a third of the legislature.

In her speech, Lam said she, too, wants more democracy but Hong Kong is facing a lot of problems. “Why don’t we start with the easier subjects first?”

The problem is that Hong Kong society may not allow her to stay away from political issues. The demand for democracy cannot be stilled.

Realistically, however, it is difficult to see Beijing agreeing to political reform in Hong Kong at a time when it is moving in the opposite direction on the mainland.

Lam will have to pick her issues carefully and handle them in such a way as to avoid being damned as Beijing’s proxy. But she can only function within confines dictated by China.

A difficult five years lie ahead, not only for her but for Hong Kong.

– Contact us at english@hkej.com

RT/CG

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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