Hong Kong faces ‘selection not election’ of China’s favoured candidate

On Sunday, 1,994 people will choose a new chief executive on behalf of Hong Kongs nearly 4 million voters but Beijings anointed one is far from popular

Every newly elected leader of Hong Kong takes the oath of office in front of Chinas president, below a giant red national flag of China, and the slightly smaller banner of the city.

It is a tightly scripted event designed to shield Chinese officials from the embarrassment of dissenting voices.

In Hong Kong politics, formality is everything, and many say the election for the citys next leader which happens on Sunday will indeed be a formality.

Most expect Beijings preferred candidate to be anointed despite her rival being by far the more popular choice.

The race for the top job, officially known as the chief executive, is largely between two retired civil servants. Carrie Lam was the deputy to the present chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and is supported by the Chinese government. John Tsang, a former financial secretary, consistently polls ahead of her by a wide margin.

A third candidate is also running, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who is neither popular nor politically connected in Beijing.

However, only 1,094 people are able to cast a ballot, far less than the citys 3.8 million registered voters. Those who have a say include all 70 members of the citys legislature and some district politicians, business groups, professional unions, pop stars, priests and professors.

This is entirely controlled by the Beijing government, its a selection, not an election, says Nathan Law, a pro-democracy legislator swept into office in the wake of 2014 street protests agitating for more open elections.

If Carrie Lam wins, it will be hard for her to govern Hong Kong because she doesnt have the support from ordinary people.

The idea that Sundays vote is indeed a selection, not an election is a mantra repeated across the political spectrum, with many dismayed that citizens in the former British colony have no say in who runs the city.

The Basic Law, Hong Kongs mini constitution, explicitly states: The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage. A political change package pushed by Beijing in 2014 would have allowed a one person, one vote system, but candidates would first need to be approved by a committee.

That pre-screening was criticised by pro-democracy activists, eventually erupting into 79 days of street protests that consumed the city.

I dont see much of a difference, comparing Lam to CY Leung, said Law, one of the leaders of those protests. Shes also responsible for the failure of political reform and the impression she has given during the campaign is that she will be a hardliner.

Law, who as a legislator is able to vote, plans to submit a blank ballot in protest against Beijings outsized influence in the decision and the small circle nature of the election.

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From left, John Tsang, Carrie Lam, and Woo Kwok-hing greet each other before a televised debate. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the city hardly feels gripped by a battle for hearts and minds. There are no mass political rallies, with much of the electioneering done in closed-door meetings with special interest groups and only a sprinkling of subdued political advertisements around the city.

Most Hong Kongers have not been debating the candidates over dinner or pints at the pub, and many are resigned to the fact their opinion has no effect on who wins. I dont see the point in even holding an election, the whole thing has already been decided by China, said Lam Ho-wai, a 26-year-old real estate agent.

Hong Kongs youth are the main drivers behind dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. As property prices skyrocket and job opportunities become scarce, more and more young people blame politicians they see as serving only Beijing. This has dovetailed with a rise in a Hong Kong identity many see as separate from China.

Its important to China to have a chief executive who could somehow draw the younger generation closer to the central government, says Michael Tien, a pro-establishment legislator. I believe John Tsang will be much more effective in dealing with the youth problem compared to Carrie Lam, and Im surprised and disappointed that the central government feels its not that important.

In December, Tien was approached by someone very close to Beijing and encouraged to support Lam for the top job, he said.

Hong Kongs chief executive office has never been without scandal. Tung Chee-hwa, the first ethnically Chinese person to run the city, resigned in the wake of mass protests against proposed national security legislation and the Sars outbreak. Donald Tsang, who succeeded Tung, was convicted of corruption last month.

In many ways its a thankless job, and in the highly polarised world of Hong Kong politics, every misstep is a tempest in a teacup.

But no matter who wins, observers say little will change in terms of political culture. The big picture will remain the same, says Matthew Wong, a politics professor at Hong Kong University. Beijing has matters firmly in hand and theres little Hong Kong people can do to change that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/24/hong-kong-selection-not-election-china-favoured-candidate

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