A lose-lose for HK whoever wins the chief executive election

March 03, 2017 08:00
John Tsang has refused to give a straight answer every time he is asked if he has privately received a red light from Beijing. Photo: HKEJ

When Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor declared her intention to run as chief executive, it became clear the election race would be between her and John Tsang Chun-wah. Lam and Tsang quit as the government’s second and third-highest officials – chief secretary and financial secretary – to compete for Hong Kong's top job, making it the most competitive and sensitive chief executive election in post-handover Hong Kong. Legislative councilor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and former judge Woo Kwok-Hing were never serious threats to the top two candidates even though Woo has received enough nominations to compete.

The million-dollar question now is not who will win but who Beijing wants to win. If persistent reports are to be believed, Lam is the chosen one because Beijing doesn’t trust Tsang. But Tsang has chosen not to believe such reports, at least outwardly. He told me in a TV interview it was pure speculation senior mainland leader Zhang Dejiang had told Hong Kong business leaders in Shenzhen that Beijing preferred Lam.

The Shenzhen meeting was so widely reported and privately confirmed by so many of those who attended that it is puzzling why Tsang dismisses it as speculation. Either he knows something we all don't about Beijing’s preference or he believes the reports but concluded it would be election suicide if he openly acknowledges Beijing opposes his candidacy.

Has Tsang been privately told that Lam is not necessarily the only chosen one and that Beijing would accept him if he wins the small-circle election of 1,194 voters who will vote in a secret ballot on March 26?

Anything is possible, given the closed-door nature of politics within the top echelons of power in Beijing. Indeed, there are those who believe Lam is the chosen one only within one faction and not necessarily the only choice of top leader Xi Jinping. I don’t understand China politics well enough to hazard a guess one way or another. But Tsang has certainly adopted a campaign mode that gives the clear impression he is running to win, not to lose.

All public opinion polls so far show he is the most popular, with Lam slowly narrowing the gap. The trouble is there have been too many signals, direct and indirect, Beijing doesn’t trust him to be chief executive even though it had trusted him as financial secretary for nine years. Reasons for this mistrust range from Tsang having spent much of his early life in the US to having been former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten's right-hand man leading up to the handover.

No senior mainland official has spoken openly of this supposed mistrust. They have only done so in nuanced ways. But the speculation is so widespread that it has become fact in the public mind. Tsang himself has refused to give a straight answer every time he is asked if he has privately received a red light from Beijing. This reluctance to come clean suggests there must be some truth to the speculation that Beijing had strongly discouraged him from running as chief executive.

If that is indeed the case, then Hong Kong is heading into a politically awkward situation at best and a constitutional crisis at worst if Tsang wins. Most of Hong Kong’s business tycoons and establishment camp leaders on the Election Committee have made a great show of lining up behind Lam, who received nearly 600 nominations out of a required 150 to be a formal candidate. Tsang and Woo’s supporters – those who nominated them and those who said they would vote for them – are predominantly from the democracy camp.

On the surface, it appears Lam is a sure winner because the democracy camp controls only about 325 Election Committee votes. Even if Tsang gets all these votes, he would still need about 300 more from the establishment camp to get the minimum 601 needed to win. That seems impossible but voting is by secret ballot. There’s nothing to stop establishment camp voters from secretly voting for Tsang without Beijing knowing. That is Tsang’s only path to victory, and is exactly what Tsang is banking on to win.

What happens if Tsang’s gamble pays off? It would be a humiliating defeat for Lam, who had long wanted to retire but was persuaded to join the race after Leung Chun-ying decided not to seek reelection. It would be an even greater humiliation for the business and establishment camp leaders who openly backed Lam. But the greatest humiliating loss of face would fall on Beijing and senior leaders such as Wang Guangya and Zhang Dejiang if the speculation is accurate that the central government mistrusts Tsang.

That may explain why the Liaison Office is pulling out all the stops to help Lam win even though doing that fuels the belief she is just another CY Leung who will be indebted to the Liaison Office if she wins. Tsang’s win could also spark a witch hunt for traitors within the Election Committee, creating mistrust between Beijing and its Hong Kong loyalists.

Beijing will have two unpalatable choices if Tsang wins – accept his victory even though the relationship between the new chief executive and Beijing will be awkward and not built on trust, or use its power not to appoint Tsang on the grounds of mistrust. The second option will trigger the worst constitutional crisis since the handover, plunging Hong Kong into unchartered political terrain, even though former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa pointedly reminded a private gathering that Beijing is within its rights not to appoint an elected chief executive.

One thing is certain: whoever wins the election – the winner will not be able to unite our divided society. If Lam wins, the opposition will persist with its divisive tactics by mocking her as CY 2.0. Some are already doing that by hounding her at her public appearances. If Tsang wins, there will either be a constitutional crisis or a testy relationship between him and Beijing, further dividing society. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation for Hong Kong.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.