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Wine Spills on Beijing’s Favored Candidate

David Pilling and Rahul Jacob in Hong Kong

Beijing’s hopes of orchestrating next month’s election for Hong Kong’s chief executive were unraveling on Friday, undone by allegations that its favored candidate had built an illegal wine cellar.

Henry Tang, Hong Kong's former chief secretary
Bloomberg | Getty Images

Pressure was mounting for Henry Tang to quit the race, after a 2,000 square-foot basement, far bigger than most Hong Kong apartments, was found in a mansion belonging to his wife.

Mr. Tang, a wine connoisseur who as finance secretary famously removed duty on wine, had been evasive about the illegal construction, adding to doubts about his integrity.

Although an election committee of just 1,200 professionals and tycoons will pick the chief executive — a far cry from the universal suffrage Beijing has promised Hong Kong – the territory’s free press has had a field day holding the two candidates up to intense scrutiny.

A teary-eyed Mr. Tang this week told reporters that while he knew the cellar — “his wife’s idea” — was illegal, he did not come clean because their relationship was experiencing a “low ebb”. Late last year, Mr. Tang came under scrutiny after admitting that he had “strayed” in his marriage.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the territory’s 3.4 million voters, who are excluded from next month’s election, favors C.Y. Leung, a property developer whose platform of social justice make him popular in a city with a wide divide between rich and poor. However, polls taken before the wine-cellar scandal also show the public expected Mr. Tang to win, indicating they believed the result was predetermined.

That calculation could now change. “The political cost for Beijing of staying with Henry Tang is too high,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. He said an announcement by the leader of a popular pro-Beijing party that he was thinking of joining the race meant Beijing was “considering Plan B”.

If Mr. Tang is forced to resign, it could set a dangerous precedent for Beijing, whose Favored candidate in Hong Kong’s “democratic” experiment would have been scuppered by an aggressive press and popular opposition.

China’s Communist party has a mixed record of corralling the political process in Hong Kong, which preserves free speech and an independent judiciary under the “one country, two systems” agreement implemented after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China 1997.

Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive after British rule, was ditched by Beijing midway through his term because he was so unpopular. His successor, Donald Tsang, the current chief executive, has sunk in popularity amid accusations that his administration is run for and by the local elite.

Many of the tycoons and professionals who dominate the 1,200-strong election committee dislike Mr. Leung, whom they fear would increase social spending and attack their business interests. That means Beijing may feel obliged to endorse a new candidate should Mr. Tang resign.

The Chinese government has indicated it will allow elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive by “universal suffrage” in 2020. However, it has made clear it will vet the candidates allowed to stand. There are also concerns it could dilute the definition of universal suffrage itself.