This week’s leadership election has riveted Hong Kong with all the political rough-and-tumble that is typical of a thriving democracy. There’s only one thing missing — the voters.
Ordinary Hong Kongers will have no say in who becomes their next chief executive on Sunday. Instead the “election” will be decided by a carefully selected committee of 1,200 pro-Beijing business and professional elites.
That detail aside, the main candidates have turned on a political spectacle that analysts say the former British colony has never seen, one that could offer a taste of things to come when direct elections arrive, possibly as early as 2017.
“This is the first real contest between two pro-establishment candidates,” Chinese University of Hong Kong history professor Willy Lam (林和立) said. “It’s very entertaining, but at the same time people are quite frustrated because both candidates have shortcomings, scandals and potential problems.”
Henry Tang (唐英年), 59, the heir to a textile fortune and the territory’s former No. 2, was reportedly Beijing’s man and a shoo-in for the job until his campaign veered dramatically off course almost from day one.
It started with an emotional public admission of marital infidelity, lurched through a series of verbal gaffes and blunders, and burst spectacularly into flames with the discovery of a massive illegal underground entertainment den at his home, which he blamed on his wife.
His popularity rankings plunged to a low of 16 percent.
Tang’s main rival, Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), 57, is a former government adviser who has consistently led opinion polls, but trails where it matters — in the regard of Beijing’s partners among the territory’s super-rich tycoons.
Despite questions over an alleged conflict of interest in a property project a decade ago and reports that he dined with triad figures, his promises to boost social welfare and public housing have proved popular with ordinary citizens who are angry over the yawning gap between rich and poor.
Beijing has appeared taken aback by the intensity of the contest and it has not come to the rescue of Tang with a public statement of endorsement, which could have inflamed anti-China sentiment.
However, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) set a cat among the pigeons last week when he said he was confident outgoing Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) would be replaced by a leader who has the support of the “vast majority” of the people.
Political analysts pored over the premier’s comment. Was it a sign that Beijing was shifting its support to Leung?
If it was, the territory’s wealthiest tycoon and Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠), didn’t get the message. The 83-year-old billionaire broke his silence on Friday with a statement saying Tang “has experience” and his election would be “good.”
Analysts say Beijing has been embarrassed by the noisy ruckus that has disturbed the carefully crafted political consensus it has cultivated in the semi-autonomous territory of 7 million people.
“Beijing felt it has lost face because the two people they have groomed for so long have failed to stand up to the test,” said Lam, referring to both Tang and Leung, both of whom are seen as establishment figures.
Many observers also spy greater Chinese issues at play, as Beijing’s reformers led by Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) faction do battle with conservatives in the Communist Party ahead of a 10-yearly leadership transition.
“Certainly, having someone like Leung in office who would support such reform moves is a bigger signal to the rest of China,” Hong Kong Baptist University political scientist Michael DeGolyer said. “That’s why the reformists group is pushing quite hard for Leung.”
However, Albert Lai (黎廣德) of the pro-democracy Civic Party said that at the end of the day both Tang and Leung “will be serving the same set of vested interests.”
“They are appointed by the same set of autocrats — Beijing plus the tycoons,” he said.
The pro-democracy camp is represented by a third candidate, lawyer and lawmaker Albert Ho (何俊仁), but analysts say he has no chance of winning the backing of the electoral committee.
The Chinese Communist Party said that, at the earliest, the territory’s chief executive could be directly elected in 2017 and the legislature by 2020.
Denied a genuine say in the outcome of Sunday’s election, many Hong Kongers are fed up with the whole thing.
“It’s a fight between two rotten apples,” 39-year-old hair stylist Gary Or said.
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