Last weekend, Hong Kong’s residents were supposed to be enjoying universal suffrage for the first time in history.
Instead, pro-democracy activists, over months of protests in 2014, rejected Beijing’s attempt at introducing a ‘Chinese’ vision of democracy that would have permitted Hong Kong’s citizens choose from among several pre-approved candidates. Those protests, which culminated in the ‘Occupy Central’ movement (also known as the ‘umbrella movement,’ a nod to the ubiquitous yellow umbrellas that protesters carried), effectively halted the adoption of a new elections law. So, on March 26,the same panel of business and civic leaders that have elected the special administration region’s executive for the last 20 years also elected Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.
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The result? The 1,194-member Election Committee chose Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥), an experienced bureaucrat who has for the last five years served as chief secretary for administration — the most senior official in the Hong Kong government after the chief executive. Lam enjoyed the heavy, if unofficial, support of the central Chinese government. Given that the business professionals who dominate the Election Committee have much to lose by alienating Beijing, Lam became in recent months the heavy favorite to win. Opponents almost immediately mocked Lam, an increasingly unpopular administrator, for winning 777 votes — the number ‘seven’ is Cantonese slang for an impotent penis.
On paper, Lam is well positioned to lead Hong Kong.
In addition to five years as chief secretary, her experience as a civil servant in the Hong Kong government dates back to the days when the city was still British-controlled. In 2007, then-chief executive Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) appointed Lam as secretary for development. As chief secretary for administration, she reached out (unsuccessfully) to the pro-democracy protesters in 2014. Moreover, Lam has an intimate command of the issues facing Hong Kong, including the region’s long-term housing shortage and rising housing costs, the effects of China’s economic slowdown and, above all, the more existential crisis that Hong Kong faces as its primacy as a hub for finance erodes in the face of competition from Shanghai and Hong Kong’s economic displacement by a Chinese mainland far more economically powerful in the 20 years since the 1997 handover. Lam’s policy priorities include more aggressive spending to tackle Hong Kong’s endemic housing issues and boost education opportunities.
Despite her attempts to promise a smooth transition and a conciliatory approach following her election, the widespread view of Lam as Beijing’s preferred candidate will hamper her ability to govern. Her public image also suffers from proximity to the outgoing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (梁振英), who struggled to find a middle ground in five years in office. Leung, himself the ‘popular’ candidate in the 2012 chief executive race, quickly gained a reputation as Beijing’s yes-man, cemented by his decision in 2014 to use tear gas to disperse pro-democracy protests, and dogged in recent years by corruption allegations. Ultimately, Leung was so unpopular that he chose not to seek reelection (much to Beijing’s delight) for a second five-year term.
Lam easily defeated former financial secretary John Tsang (曾俊華), a seasoned veteran of past administrations and the most important economic policymaker in Hong Kong from 2007 until his resignation at the end of last year. Tsang’s experience in Hong Kong affairs, like Lam’s, also goes back to the British colonial era, when he served as private secretary to Chris Patten, the last governor-general.
The substantive differences between Tsang and Lam were always relatively thinner than the contest suggested. Pro-democracy activists enthusiastically supported Tsang, whose campaign took on a far more populist tone in the leadup to the election, and Tsang was the genuinely more popular choice. In the final HK01/HKUPOP poll from March 21-24, Tsang was the favorite of 55.6% of Hong Kong residents (in contrast to just 29.1% support for Lam). Woo Kwok-hing (胡國興), a retired judge and a former chair of the Electoral Affairs Commission, trailed far behind in third place. Notably, none of that mattered to the Election Committee. But Lam is not quite the Beijing lackey that her enemies fear, and Tsang would not be the democratic revolutionary of his supporters’ dreams.
For now, both poles seem to have won something from the weekend’s vote.
Pro-democracy activists believe that the failure to enact a law allowing for broader suffrage in 2014 means that Lam’s victory will not come with the veneer of democratic mandate that would have followed from what they believe would have been a meaningless contest among pro-Beijing officials.
But Beijing too has reason to be happy. As the central Chinese government readies for 20th anniversary celebrations of the handover, and as the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) prepares for a crucial handover among its top echelons at this autumn’s 19th national congress, the CCP will be far more comfortable with its hand-selected ally, Lam, in charge.
The decision to back Lam so strongly comes in contrast with China’s approach five years ago. The central government widely signaled its preference for Henry Tang (唐英年) in the 2012 election, only to switch to Leung in the closing weeks of the campaign as embarrassing details emerged about Tang’s extramarital affairs and engaging in illicit building improvements — a big deal for a city where housing comes at such a premium. Most Hong Kongers also preferred the ‘wolf’ Leung to the ‘pig’ Tang, viewing the former as far more cunning and able than his opponent. (They may have been right about Leung’s wiliness — he immediately signaled he would work in harmony with Beijing, even giving his inaugural address in Mandarin instead of the local Cantonese, much to the disgust of local residents).
Under Xi Jinping (习近平), however, it was clear that Beijing wouldn’t bow to public opinion, and Xi couldn’t have wavered from Lam without severely backtracking from his relatively hard line on Hong Kong.
As the Lam government unfolds, however, the potential for political strife looms large.
Pro-democracy activists may have blown their one opportunity to permit genuine, if flawed, elections in Hong Kong by protesting legislation in 2014. But the protests diminished the relatively moderate ‘pan-democratic’ camp, to the benefit of a growing ‘localism’ movement that embraces everything from greater autonomy to outright independence and that has developed a widespread following among the city’s young. Among its most prolific leaders are Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), the 20-year-old leader of Demosistō (香港眾志), a pro-democracy party founded in 2016, and Nathan Law (羅冠聰), a 23-year-old student leader who, like Wong, took a prominent role in the umbrella movement and was elected to the city’s Legislative Council last autumn. Wong and his allies already promise to lead a protest on July 1, Lam’s inauguration, which also marks the 20th anniversary of the handover — an even that the Chinese press indicates Xi is likely to attend.
Accordingly, the new generation of pro-democracy activist seem headed for a sharper confrontation with Beijing, which will be wary of any kind of violent Tiananmen Square-style crackdown — at a time when Xi hopes to project the image of Chinese leadership as benevolent and global-oriented. (And, of course, Taiwan is watching.) Lam seemed well poised to offer a more conciliatory administration, and she might still broker a compromise to allow for wider ‘one person, one vote’ suffrage in the 2022 chief executive election. But reports that leading ‘Occupy’ protestors were charged Monday — one day after Lam’s election — with public nuisance and other criminal charges relating to the 2014 protests are an ominous sign, especially after Hong Kong journalists are increasingly in danger of criminal harassment.
All of this will make Lam’s job even more difficult. After elections for 35 of the 70 seats to the Legislative Council last October, pro-Beijing legislators still hold a small majority, largely due to their lead among the seats chosen by ‘functional constituencies,’ hand-picked from among Hong Kong’s various industries. Nevertheless, Lam will face a vocal and active opposition from both the pan-democratic camp and the even more independent ‘localist’ camp, both of which believe Lam is irrevocably beholden to Beijing for her position. Notably, two of the most separatist legislators elected last October were later barred from taking office by Chinese officials last November.
British and Chinese officials negotiated a democratic constitution for Hong Kong under the principle of ‘one country, two systems,’ guaranteeing for at least 50 years the free press, independent judiciary and other aspects of Hong Kong’s unique government that included the promise of eventual universal suffrage by 2017. Nevertheless, as Xi commands a stronger domestic grip on the mainland and the CCP — and broadens an aggressive security and economic posture in the Asia-Pacific region — activists fear that Hong Kong’s bespoke Basic Law and freedoms are being gradually dissolved.
Adding to Lam’s problems is the ignominious record of her three predecessors. Not without reason, Hong Kongers are cynical about their leaders.
Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), the first chief minister of the post-British era, resigned in disgrace in 2005 after botching an anti-sedition law rooted in the controversial Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law and perceived failures to stem the tide of the SARS epidemic. Tsang, who left office in 2012 under a cloud of corruption scandals, was convicted on a charge of misconduct in public office in February after Tsang was discovered to have rented and redecorated a luxury penthouse from people he showered with favors while in office.