It’s all but a foregone conclusion that former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the favored candidate of the powers that be in Beijing, will be chosen as Hong Kong’s fourth chief executive since the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.
What is not so certain, however, is how she will manage to govern a troubled city of 7.3 million people in which she has become a living, breathing symbol of the central government’s heavy-handed interference in Hong Kong affairs.
Indeed, opinion polls show quite clearly that her chief rival, John Tsang Chun-wah, who served as finance chief for nine years before resigning to join the race for the chief executive post, is far more popular among the public, but it appears Chinese authorities will insist on shoehorning Lam into Government House when the 1,194-member Election Committee, largely controlled by Beijing, meets on March 26 to “vote” on the winner.
Current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, also perceived to be on puppet strings extending far to the north, garnered such disapproval and downright hostility during his five-year term in office that he didn’t even bother to mount a reelection bid.
With Lam as the city’s leader, Beijing will have once again demonstrated its strong hand in Hong Kong, although the backlash is likely to be five more years of turbulence and dysfunction in city governance.
Nearly 20 years after the handover, China’s pledge to grant full democracy to the former colony has been hitched to patently undemocratic conditions, and the magical “one country, two systems” formula that was supposed to guarantee and protect Hong Kong’s autonomy is losing its luster well before its expiry date of 2047 as agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Before the Union Jack came down and the Chinese flag was raised on July 1, 1997, the city had been promised by no less a figure than the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that “horse racing will continue, dancing parties will go on.” And, if you take Deng’s words literally, the central government has kept its promise: The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s coffers are chock-full, and the city’s wealthy elite are still regularly clinking champagne glasses at fashionable soirees.
Deng was no literalist, however, and it was widely assumed that his galloping thoroughbreds and dancing couples were poetic metaphors for the special freedoms of speech, press and assembly guaranteed in the city’s post-handover mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law. At the age of 92, Deng would die eight months after Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty, and it is fair to say no poets have since joined the Chinese leadership.
The new era began inauspiciously with the 1997 Asian financial crisis and an outbreak of bird flu that infected 18 people, killing six, and resulted in the wholesale slaughter of Hong Kong’s entire chicken population in December that year.
The city’s first chief executive – Tung Chee-hwa, the Shanghai-born heir to a shipping company, Orient Overseas Container Line, saved from bankruptcy in the 1980s in part by a US$120 million injection from the Chinese government — lurched from crisis to crisis.
Not much went right during Tung’s first five-year term; in March of 2005, three years into his second, he would resign due to “health problems” that were never specified but were likely a cover for stepping down at Beijing’s behest in the wake of a 500,000-strong street demonstration condemning his administration.
Later that year, in seemingly fine fettle, Tung would be awarded for his loyalty with an appointment as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the same consolation prize granted to Leung this week after he bit the bullet and stepped aside for Lam.
Between the failed Tung and reviled Leung regimes, Hong Kong limped through seven years under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who as chief secretary under Tung took over for the remaining two years of his term following Tung’s resignation and then, in 2007, was chosen outright by the Election Committee for another five years as chief executive.
Tsang also struggled mightily to satisfy the different demands of his two irreconcilable masters. The central authorities in Beijing wanted tighter control over a truculent city they saw as a spoiled child, while Hong Kong’s pan-democratic forces, especially among the younger generation, grew increasingly restive and angry as Beijing’s grip tightened.
In what has now been become a well-established pattern for Hong Kong leaders, Tsang’s popularity would plummet. By the time his term ended in 2012, he also faced allegations of corruption that culminated in a trial, ending last month, in which a jury found him guilty of misconduct in public office. He is now serving 20 months in prison.
After three failed chief executive administrations, it’s clearly time for Beijing to rethink its Hong Kong strategy – and yet there is only more of the same.
At the handover, hope and aspiration for the “one country, two systems” arrangement abounded. Now there is a loss of faith that has spawned widespread anti-mainland sentiment across the city and even a small but vocal movement for Hong Kong to declare itself an independent city-state, à la Singapore.
Two pro-independence lawmakers elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council last September were subsequently unseated for staging anti-China protests as they were reciting their oaths of office.
In addition, no doubt encouraged by the Chinese leadership, the Hong Kong government has gone to court to challenge the legality of the oaths of four other pro-democracy legislators who also added elements of protest while being sworn in, even though their oaths were accepted as valid at the time by the Legco president.
From Beijing’s point of view, Hong Kong has been far too slow to accept its authority and must be firmly put in its place. Yet repeated paternal spankings have only sparked further rebellion, division and conflict – to the point now where a chief executive candidate for whom the central government demonstrates a preference is receiving more of a curse than a blessing.
So Carrie Lam may well win the March election, but she’ll have a much harder time winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Hong Kong.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter @KentEwing1