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Beijing Switches Support in Race for Hong Kong Chief

China’s leaders have begun actively supporting a populist to become the next chief executive of Hong Kong in elections this Sunday, abandoning their previous private support for a wealthy civil servant whose candidacy has been plagued by scandals, local politicians and political analysts said Wednesday.

Hong Kong chief executive candidate Leung Chun-ying
Aaron Tam | AFP | Getty Images
Hong Kong chief executive candidate Leung Chun-ying

Active backing from Beijing makes it increasingly likely that Leung Chun-ying, a real estate surveyor who advocates more construction of public housing, will defeat Henry Tang, the wealthy scion of a Shanghai textile manufacturing family who was Hong Kong’s second-ranking official, chief secretary, until he stepped down last autumn to run for chief executive.

Only 1,193 people are eligible to vote in the election, as representatives of various sectors of society. Sectors deemed to be friendly to Beijing, like traditional Chinese medicine, have far more electors relative to their share of the population than do sectors deemed hostile, like social workers or lawyers.

Pro-Beijing newspapers here have begun giving prominent, enthusiastic coverage to Mr. Leung. Beijing’s representative office here, the Liaison Office, has been taking vanloads of electors across the border to Shenzhen for meetings with Liu Yandong, the only female member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, to discuss the advantages of Mr. Leung’s candidacy, political activists in Hong Kong said.

Regina Ip, a lawmaker and the chairwoman of the New People’s Party, which has stayed neutral in the race so far, said that invitations to the Shenzhen meetings had become sought after among pro-Beijing lawmakers. “Some people are disappointed that they have not been invited to Shenzhen,” she said.

Officials at the Liaison Office and with Mr. Leung’s campaign declined to comment. Mr. Leung has consistently led in public opinion surveys, with Mr. Tang coming in second and Albert Ho, the chairman of the Democratic Party, a distant third.

Mr. Leung has won a reputation as a populist by challenging the dominance of a handful of large real estate groups and suggesting that the government should build more housing. That campaign platform has been popular at a time of very high rents and high apartment prices, partly because of an influx of investors from mainland China.

Mr. Tang’s campaign has floundered since autumn despite strong early backing from most of Hong Kong’s real estate tycoons and from the so-called Shanghai faction in Beijing. He admitted last year that he had been unfaithful to his wife, after local news reports linked him to a series of women.

He conceded last month that he had built a basement under a villa belonging to his wife without planning permission or the payment of real estate taxes. Mr. Tang initially blamed his wife and said that he had not tried to fix the problem because of stresses in his marriage, but later took personal responsibility after callers to talk shows expressed sympathy for his wife.

Mr. Tang has tried to recover politically by suggesting that Mr. Leung might be more likely to restrict civil liberties as chief executive. While still in his 30s, Mr. Leung played a large role in helping Beijing write Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution, which took effect after the British returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997.

Mr. Leung’s early prominence has prompted many suggestions that he might have been a member of the Chinese Communist Party, which still functions as an underground organization in Hong Kong and is believed to have no more than a few hundred members.

Mr. Leung’s campaign issued a statement on Sunday denying that he had ever been a party member, or that he had ever asked to join the party or been invited to join.

Mr. Tang said in a debate last Friday that during massive demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2003 against proposed, stringent internal security legislation that was later dropped, Mr. Leung had suggested during a top-level government meeting that it might be necessary to deploy riot officers or tear gas.

Mr. Leung, Mrs. Ip and several other prominent Hong Kong politicians who were in the government at the time have denied that he made this suggestion and have pointed out that top officials take an oath of secrecy about their deliberations.

Mr. Tang responded that the public interest should be more important than secrecy.