Why the Messy Chief Executive Election Is Good for Hong Kong

It’s the dirtiest, nastiest election yet in Hong Kong’s short modern history as a part of China. The race between Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying has decomposed into mudslinging over Tang’s infidelity and illegal construction; and Leung’s alleged ties to organized crime, commercial conflicts of interest and allegations that he advocated draconian police crackdowns on protestors nearly a decade ago.

Hong Kong chief executive candidates Leung Chun-ying (L), Henry Tang (C) and Albert Ho (R) pose for a picture before a chief executive candidates forum in Hong Kong on March 16, 2012.
Aaron Tam | AFP | Getty Images
Hong Kong chief executive candidates Leung Chun-ying (L), Henry Tang (C) and Albert Ho (R) pose for a picture before a chief executive candidates forum in Hong Kong on March 16, 2012.

It has the makings of a real democratic process, and it might be a step in that direction.

The last two Chief Executive anointments were relatively benign affairs, with the outcomes well telegraphed. This round could potentially yield a non-result. In the final days of the campaign, more members of the 1193 members of the Election Committee say they will cast no vote on Sunday, including 4 leaders of the normally pro-business Liberal Party. The democratic candidate Albert Ho, says the 203 democrats on the committee will either vote for him, abstain or submit blank ballots. Clearly, many of all political stripes are deeply dissatisfied with the choices put to them.

Tang was clearly China’s preference, but Leung has outgunned him consistently, at one point commanding more than 50 percent support in public polls. In the last couple of weeks, Hong Kong media have been widely reporting that Beijing has been lobbying committee members who support Tang, including tycoon Li Ka-shing, to shift to the Leung camp.

This scenario hardly looks like Beijing foisting its will on the city; it looks more like an eleventh-hour attempt to re-engineer the process to be far more palatable to the public.

Beijing remembers vividly the failure of the Tung Chee-hwa administration, which led him to step down, and wants to avoid a repeat of the prospect of half a million people marching in the streets

Former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, who was once dubbed “The Conscience of Hong Kong” told the Wall Street Journal this week that Beijing should take note and get the ball rolling toward promised “universal suffrage” in the Chief Executive selection by 2017. Mrs. Chan even suggested the best outcome is a hung vote with no clear winner, so the whole process could start over again, with a bigger pool of candidates.

I spent time this week with Regina Ip, the former Secretary for Security who was forced from office in 2003 over protests about internal security legislation, which she spearheaded. Since then, she’s reinvented her image, started a new populist-leaning political party, and even made an initial attempt to get on the ticket, but failed to get enough nominations.

I asked her on television if she’d throw her hat back into the ring if the vote yielded no winner. Her eyes lit up, a grin emerged, and she enthusiastically blurted “Yes!”, that she’d jump back in, and would have more time to drum up support.

But seconds later, she predicted that Leung would in the end get the 601 votes he needs.

I still can’t decide if she really believes that, or whether she was just trying to be diplomatic.