Xi’s just not that into you

The too hot-to-handle race for Hong Kong’s third chief executive is now so electric it’s verboten to report on the race on the Chinese mainland.

In fact, China and Hong Kong may have stumbled into one of the most (accidentally) democratic elections in the Middle Kingdom’s history, as everyone scrambles to determine which candidate is truly favored by Beijing.

The March 25 race is all the more relevant considering that Hong Kong affairs fall within the portfolio of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the presumptive heir to outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao, who will step down in 2013.

Three candidates are running for the post, which will be vacated by current chief executive Donald Tsang on July 1:

  • Henry Tang, a businessman who began the race as the favored Beijing candidate as well as the favorite of local Hong Kong developers;
  • Leung Chun-ying, another pro-Beijing candidate who has become the popular favorite, notwithstanding his pro-Beijing sentiment; and
  • Albert Ho, an anti-Beijing candidate of the Democracy Party who has no shot of winning;

The election is not an exercise in direct democracy (or even representative democracy), but rather a decision of the Election Committee, an electoral college of 1,200 Hong Kong SAR residents, which will vote on the basis of Hong Kong business interests as well as the interests of the top leadership echelon of the People’s Republic of China.

In other words, the chief executive will have to be acceptable to both the local business elite as well as to the PRC leadership.

And amid tawdry revelations at every turn of the scandal, there are conflicting signs about the PRC brass’s favorite.

Increasingly, though, in a turn worthy of Yes, Minister, it appears that the unofficial pro-Beijing candidate (Leung) could now be, unofficially, Beijing’s official candidate.

Instead of the officially official candidate (Tang).

Initially, the race was Tang’s to lose — Tang had been long groomed for the position, serving as Chief Secretary for Administration from 2007 to 2011 and, previously, as Financial Secretary from 2003 to 2007.  His family was long established in Hong Kong in the textile business since their arrival in 1949, and his father had ties to the Chinese Communist Party, serving as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body in the PRC.  Tang has ties to the pro-Beijing Liberal Party in Hong Kong and he remains the favorite of local Hong Kong real estate developers and businessmen.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation.

Tang has proven an abysmal candidate.  He’s been dogged by embarrassing accusations of extramarital affairs, some of which he’s admitted in an all-too-familiar press conference with his wife at his side.  In February, however, Tang was reported to have engaged in unauthorized construction of an illegal basement — it’s especially damning because Tang, in his role as Chief Secretary for Administration, is the officer responsible for enforcing building codes.  The Hong Kong media swarmed to the site of Tang’s swanky home in a sideshow that itself widely became a joke in the Chinese and Hong Kong media. Tang has since apologized, but said it was his wife’s idea to build the unauthorized basement, earning yet more scorn from Hong Kong’s populace.

The scandal comes in addition to even more astonishing revelations about Tsang, a former civil servant and chief executive since 2005, all the while enjoying a stellar reputation.  In the past month, however, he has been accused of impropriety in accepting the use of yachts and jets from wealthy developers and, more seriously, accepting a reduced-rent arrangement for a property in Shenzhen, the economic powerhouse on the mainland adjacent to Hong Kong.  Tsang has apologized, but remains subject to the first corruption investigation of a Hong Kong chief executive.

The revelations only underscore the scandal surrounding Tang, who’s served in Tsang’s administration from its inception.

Leung, meanwhile, has somewhat incredulously become the popular choice.  Leung, who served from 1999 to 2011 as the Convenor of the Executive Council of Hong Kong — a policy-making body that reports to the chief executive — is viewed with more suspicion from local Hong Kong businessmen.  Indeed, the local media have dubbed Leung a “wolf” to Tang’s more plodding “pig.”  Leung has also failed to dodge mudslinging — most recently, in the form of accusations that his advisers had recently dined with an ex-leader of the triad, Hong Kong’s homegrown outfit of gangsters.

Nonetheless, polls of Hong Kong residents show Leung with a commanding lead in February and in March of between 45% and 51% to just around 20% for Tang and just around 10% for Ho.

So given all the problems with Tang, whose election could be a massive humiliation for Xi as he prepares to become president in the PRC, everyone is looking to signs from Beijing that the PRC leadership is beginning to turn to Leung.

Earlier today, PRC premier Wen Jiabao made his first comments on the Hong Kong contest, noting that he believed the election would result in a leader who has the support of the “vast majority” of the people in Hong Kong — a definite wink in Leung’s direction.  Even Xi’s handshakes with Leung supporters in Beijing earlier this month — and lack of handshakes with Tang supporters — was viewed as a signal of his preference.

The election comes at a time when Hong Kong residents have become markedly frustrated with ever-increasing housing prices — in a city-state that’s long been known for laissez-faire economics, rent control has long been a deviation from the free-market gospel that turned Hong Kong into a global economic powerhouse.  Tensions are also rising among Hong Kong residents over the migration of mainland Chinese to the SAR — an inflammatory ad earlier this year compared mainland immigrants to “locusts” on matters ranging from the rights of mainlanders to give birth in Hong Kong hospitals (Hong Kong’s version of “anchor babies”) to differences in class, language and even etiquette and public hygiene.

For his own part, the longshot Ho is running on a “plague-on-both-your-houses” campaign, calling both Tang and Leung disasters in waiting.

But if the vote is sufficiently split among the three candidates, the race will go to a May runoff, thereby prolonging the fiasco for another two months, which could prove an ever worse PR disaster for Beijing and for Xi.

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