Friday, March 30, 2012

Hong Kong’s next leader-Enter the Manchurian candidate

The less unpopular man wins, but governing without a mandate will be hard
IT WAS a contest. That much can be said. Hong Kong’s next chief executive, “C.Y.” Leung Chun-ying, beat his rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen, in the final weeks of a bizarre process that most Hong Kongers refer to as a “small-circle election”. In a city of more than 7m people, fewer than 700 cast votes for Mr Leung on March 25th. But since only 1,193 citizens were eligible, that was enough to win.

The irony is that it turned out to be Hong Kong public opinion, more than anything else, that determined Mr Leung (pictured above, without bow tie) would beat Mr Tang, to replace the outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen (pictured above, with bow tie). In July 2011 Wang Guangya, the head of the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office, said the next chief executive, should meet three conditions: love of country (read: acceptance of Communist Party rule, meaning the candidate from the Democratic Party didn’t have a chance); competence; and that “the one elected should be widely accepted”. So all eyes have been fixed on the public-opinion polls, especially those run from the University of Hong Kong’s polling unit.

If either of the candidates whom the leaders in Beijing judged acceptable were to win those polls by a wide margin, the electors might line up behind him. The point was to stage an event that could be guaranteed to produce a safe outcome while at the same time legitimising the next leader. This could be a dry run for the next election in 2017, when some kind of universal suffrage has been more or less promised.

Making up just 0.017% of the population, this year’s Election Committee forms a small circle indeed. It is an odd mix, divided into blocks representing business and professional interests which are themselves aligned with political factions. The Basic Law of Hong Kong, the territory’s post-handover constitution, makes it easy enough for the government in Beijing to stack the deck in any such contest. This time however, unlike in 1997, 2002 and 2007, the competition was real and even fierce. Muck was raked in the local press, flung back and forth between Messrs Tang and Leung. Some of it stuck.

Mr Tang had been the clear favourite to win for most of the past year, but a series of gaffes over many months and admissions about his private life culminated in the revelation in mid-February that he had illegally constructed a lavish basement under a property owned by his wife. The smart money started to shift to Mr Leung. Soon, after discreet signals from Beijing, the pro-Communist Party press stepped into line, giving him more prominent coverage in the days before the vote.

Nonetheless, Mr Leung’s victory is in many ways shocking. Though he is a self-made businessman with longstanding ties to Beijing, he is disliked by the territory’s landed gentry, whose support is supposed to be crucial and who all favoured Mr Tang.

They fear Mr Leung is a populist who will pander to the people by forcing property tycoons to release more land under their control, in order to build more flats, and bring down Hong Kong’s stifling property prices. Many ordinary people hope he will do just that. The tycoons' case will be weakened by the surprise arrest on March 29th, for alleged graft, of two major property developers, reported to be Raymond and Thomas Kwok of Sun Hung Kai Properties, as well as a former high government official, reported to be Rafael Hui. Even before this, though, Mr Leung was already toning down his more reformist rhetoric.

Mr Leung cuts a mysterious figure, with an austere personal style that makes him easy to demonise. He is denounced as a “chameleon” by outspoken liberals, his “DNA” as a Hong Konger called into question. The territory’s pro-democratic figures, joined by Mr Leung’s adversaries in the business community, have therefore begun raising an old accusation: that Mr Leung is a closet Communist. He denies it but seems unable to shake the charge, despite many recent public appearances promising to protect Hong Kong’s “core values” of free speech and the rule of law.

For Mr Leung, though, populist does not mean broadly popular. “Least unpopular” might be more like it. The same polling unit that spelled doom for Mr Tang played host to a mock election on March 23rd-24th, in which all of Hong Kong’s adult citizens were invited to vote. Despite the efforts of hackers to bring down the unit’s website, 220,000 people managed to cast ballots in its straw poll—more than four times the number expected. Although Mr Leung did beat Mr Tang, by 18% to 16%, easily the most popular option among Hong Kongers who could be bothered to vote appeared to be a cry of frustration: 55% of the votes cast were blank. The Economist

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