A recent “election” in Hong Kong that saw Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) emerge as the new chief executive/guardian of the “status quo” in the Chinese territory was as close as it could get to an actual election campaign. It featured its share of scandals, reports of potential conflicts of interest and mudslinging among candidates — all familiar elements to which Taiwanese and other voters in democratic countries could relate.
If only Hong Kongers had the power to vote for their leaders.
Under the “one country, two systems (一國兩制)” framework enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law — the territory’s mini-Constitution — a 1,200-strong committee consisting of mostly Hong Kong lawmakers and pro-Beijing individuals representing special interest groups have the responsibility to “vote” for Hong Kong’s leader.
That the winner of the most recent contest was a pro--establishment figure was no surprise; however, the Election Committee this time around did not play its typical role of rubber-stamping Beijing’s choice. For once, the Chinese central government actually took into consideration public opinion in deciding which of the two main (read: Beijing-sanctioned) candidates it would back: Leung and former Hong Kong chief secretary for administration Henry Tang (唐英年). Further wrinkling the script was the fact that the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong was not united behind Leung or Tang.
Yet, the Hong Kong public is chafing under Beijing’s intrusive thumb, as well as at the idea that their leader belongs to a coterie of elites. Twenty-eight members of the Election Committee who represent the territory’s social welfare sector boycotted the vote, saying they were dissatisfied with the “twisted and unjust” election process under what they called a “small circle” electoral system.
Meanwhile, an alternative poll, or a “civic referendum” as it was called, organized by the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and held in the final two days before the Election Committee’s March 25 vote, had a turnout of nearly 230,000 people. Between the three candidates, a fourth option emerged as the landslide “winner”: about 55 percent cast a blank vote, demonstrating widespread dissatisfaction with the field of candidates.
Given the increasing calls within the territory for universal suffrage and growing resentment against mainlanders in general, perhaps it was no surprise that such a high percentage voted this way. That the online voting system of HKU’s alternative poll experienced “high-level cyberattacks” is enough to raise suspicions that certain groups had vested interests in -preventing the vote — unofficial as it was — from happening.
Maintaining the “status quo” on Beijing’s behalf has been made easier by the practice of self-censorship among media in the territory, a trend that has increased since its handover to China in 1997, with about 30 percent of Hong Kong journalists admitting to having practiced self-censorship, according to a 2007 survey by the Hong Kong Journalists Association. The survey also showed that about 42 percent of journalists viewed downplaying issues or information “unfavorable” or “believed to be sensitive” to Beijing as the most serious forms of self-censorship. Another 28 percent identified downplaying news that harmed the interests of highly influential conglomerates — important sources of ad revenue for media publications — or the Hong Kong government’s image as the most serious forms of self--censorship that take place.