Willy Lam on the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election

Willy Lam is a veteran observer and analyst of Chinese foreign policy and domestic politics and author of numerous books on China. He is an Adjunct Professor at the History Department and the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He recently published Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (Routledge, 2015, New York). He spoke to Aaron Yang on March 1, 2017.

Why is the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election important? What is at stake?

It has been 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China. On July 1, 2017 President Xi Jinping will go to Hong Kong to celebrate the anniversary of the handover of sovereignty. Hong Kong has reappeared on the radar screen of international media, commentators, and politicians due to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which was a big, albeit unsuccessful, effort by young people to push Beijing to implement universal suffrage in the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. A sizeable movement in support of “self-determination for Hong Kong” emerged out of the Umbrella Movement. Some people may call this a pro-independence movement, but it is more accurate to call it a campaign for self-determination. This campaign seeks self-determination through a referendum and wants the Hong Kong people to be able to choose between sticking with the status quo or becoming independent. Although this movement enjoys the support of only a tiny minority among Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population, as expected, it aroused intense opposition from Beijing. The stakes are high for the Chief Executive election because if Carrie Lam – the former Chief Secretary for Administration who is Beijing s favored candidate and thus the most likely winner – becomes Chief Executive, it is possible she might use draconian methods to further restrict Hong Kong’s freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and so forth. She may also introduce a national security legislation – which will spell out harsh punishments for “sedition” or “secession” and in general further constrict the room for maneuver for pro-democracy activists here. This would reflect Beijing’s paranoia about the so-called independence movement.

Please briefly describe the Chief Executive election process. How much independence does the Election Committee have in deciding the Chief Executive?

Since 1997, there has basically been no change in the way the Chief Executive is elected, which occurs every 5 years. The Chief Executive is picked by an electoral college of 1,200 community leaders and prominent representatives of different sectors of Hong Kong society. However, Beijing has immense control over how these 1,200 electors came into being. Out of the 1,200 electors, the majority, around 750, are considered to be pro-Beijing, pro-establishment representatives. Around 330 electors represent pro-democracy sectors and other political party candidates. Simply put, we can say that at least 600 out of the total 1,200 electors will cast their ballots according to the instructions from Beijing. The roughly 330 pro-democracy electors will vote against whichever candidate is favored by Beijing. And then the rest, about 300 electors, represent business and professional bodies. Out of these 300 electors, about half of them will most likely also follow Beijing’s instructions. 

Could you briefly describe the field and the state of the race as of now?

The nominations closed today and there has been no surprise because the entire procedure is controlled by Beijing. Authoritarian governments hate surprises. One funny, but true, expression regarding the difference between elections in democracies and those in authoritarian states is that in democracies, one won’t know the results until pretty much the last ballots are counted. But in authoritarian countries, the results of the elections are known before even the first ballots are cast. I am afraid the election in Hong Kong is one such election. Carrie Lam is the hot favorite and Beijing has made it known very clearly that they favor her. Yesterday, she reported to the electoral authorities that she had 579 nominations. To become an official candidate in the Hong Kong Chief Executive election, one needs at least signatures from 150 electors. Lam’s major opponent, former Hong Kong financial secretary John Tsang, had 160. The other opponent, former Hong Kong judge, Justice Woo Kwok-hing had 180 nominations. As of now, we have three official candidates, which seems to be the final group of candidates for the electoral college to vote for on March 26. 

One important thing to note is that a few weeks ago something very unusual happened. Two very senior Chinese politicians visited Shenzhen, which is right across from Hong Kong. One of them was Zhang Dejiang, who is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most important governing council and the number three highest ranking official just after President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The two officials met with a wide range of Hong Kong electors and asked them to vote for Carrie Lam. This event was widely reported in the Hong Kong media and has not been denied by anyone. This is very unusual because the third most powerful person in China came to Shenzhen to urge the members of Hong Kong’s electoral college to give their ballots to Lam. Under such a scenario, two blocs of electors will be instrumental for a Lam victory. First is the bloc of 600 pro-Beijing electors, who will vote according to Beijing’s instructions. The second bloc consists of roughly 300 electors who are members of the business community and professional organizations. About half of them, and this may be an oversimplification because we don’t have the exact political affiliations of this bloc, will follow Beijing’s instructions and also vote for Lam. Putting two and two together, that means that close to 600 of the pro-Beijing electors and about 150 of the business bloc will vote according to Beijing’s instructions. Therefore Lam is expected to carry around 750 ballots on March 26. Candidates just need 601 votes, a simple majority, to win the Chief Executive election. Lam’s victory looks like a foregone conclusion.

Current public opinion polls show her trailing fellow former civil-servant John Tsang if the executive election was held under universal suffrage. Is there any reason to suspect a possible victory for a different candidate similar to Henry Tang’s defeat by Leung Chun-ying in 2012?

The possibility of a surprise ending, similar to what took place in the U.S. presidential election in last November, is very low. The actual voting on March 26 is closed ballot, unlike the nomination process, so in theory members of the pro-Beijing establishment, could for whatever reason anonymously vote for John Tsang, who is a former Financial Secretary. These electors still will not have enough votes to shift the election for Tsang. However, this election is a landmark election because even though Tsang used to be the third highest position in the Hong Kong government, he is still relatively popular. He enjoys the support of the pro-democracy camp. This has never happened before, which is a senior member of the Hong Kong administration getting support from the pro-democracy camp. Even though he will lose the election, it shows that it is possible for a senior administrator of Hong Kong to get the support of pan-democratic electors and politicians. This is new and has never happened before in Hong Kong politics.

How is Beijing playing its cards at this stage? What means does Beijing have to influence the selection process? 

There are many mechanisms Beijing can use. For example, since the handover in 1997, Beijing has had a liaison office in Hong Kong. This liaison office, being Beijing’s main representative mission in Hong Kong, has been instrumental in trying to get support for pro-Beijing candidates in all kinds of elections. During the last legislative election in 2016 for the Hong Kong Legislative Council, the liaison office played a big role in giving money and other kinds of support to pro-Beijing candidates. This time for the Chief Executive election they have been rigorously lobbying for Carrie Lam. They have made telephone calls to many members of the electoral college, asking them to vote only for Lam. Also, Beijing is in control of a good chunk of the media in Hong Kong. These pro-Beijing newspapers have been one-sided in promoting Lam.

How is Hong Kong’s business community, in particular the tycoons, viewing this election?

The tycoons and other business leaders in the past would usually follow Beijing’s instructions in the Chief Executive election even though voting is anonymous. This time however, may be different since the tycoons, including Li Ka-shing, who is one of the richest men in Asia, are quite unhappy with Beijing simply because in the past 10 years a vast number of Chinese companies have flooded the Hong Kong market. As a result, the local tycoon business leaders are facing unprecedented heavy competition from Chinese companies, many of whom have opened branches in Hong Kong. If one looks at the capitalization of the Hong Kong stock market, one will find that more than 60 percent of the capitalization is accounted for by mainland companies. Tycoons such as Li Ka-shing feel threatened because these huge Chinese companies enjoy sterling political connections with the Communist Party leadership. They are often run by “princelings” (children of party elders), or, if not, well-connected managers who have secured the political backing of powerful clans in the party. That is why Hong Kong’s Chief Executive incumbent, Leung Chun-ying, had a very bad relationship with tycoons, who felt Leung was responsible for facilitating the entry of Chinese companies into Hong Kong. So for the first time we will see that there will be a large number of electors from the business community voting for John Tsang as a protest vote. These tycoons want to send Beijing the message that they do not want these big movers and shakers from the Chinese economy, particularly huge state-owned enterprises, to come into Hong Kong and corner the market. These mainland behemoths do not often play by the rules of the game and they could threaten the level playing field in Hong Kong, which is one of Hong Kong’s core values.

How will this election affect future relations between Hong Kong and Beijing? What will be the new Chief Executive’s top priorities? 

Beijing is adamant about picking someone it can fully control to become Chief Executive and to carry out its instructions undiluted. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he tightened restrictions on liberties in Hong Kong and he has made it very difficult for pro-democracy candidates to win local elections. China has also threatened independent journalists in Hong Kong and of course there was the notorious case of the kidnapping of a bookseller in late 2015. I am afraid that after Carrie Lam becomes Chief Executive on July 1, Beijing’s efforts to squeeze and restrict Hong Kong’s freedoms will become exacerbated. Hong Kong’s society will only become more divisive between the pro-Beijing camp and the pro-democracy camp. The contradictions and fighting between the two camps will get worse.

What do you think is the greatest dilemma facing the new Chief Executive in trying to govern Hong Kong with genuine local support while maintaining Beijing’s trust?

Carrie Lam has served in the Hong Kong government for 35 years. In the brief election campaign for Chief Executive, she has tried to her credit to moderate her campaign platforms to gain support from other sectors of society and not just from the pro-establishment camp. For example, she has said that she might, just might, postpone the promulgation of the national security law, which Beijing wants to be enacted as soon as possible. Lam has also promised to consult more broadly, particularly with young people. This is important because many people under 30 are disgruntled because of political and economic reasons. Politically, they don’t see universal-suffrage elections happening in the coming decade or so. Economically, the cost of living is very high and real estate prices have gone through the roof. Right now, it is almost impossible for college graduates, even those with relatively lucrative jobs like lawyers and accountants, to buy their first apartment without the support of their parents. Hong Kong real estate prices are now the highest in the world. Carrie Lam has promised to talk to the young people, but her first priority remains Beijing. At the end of the day, I’m afraid the instructions from Beijing will win out. Her first priority is to satisfy the demands of her masters and only secondarily to satisfy the demands of the Hong Kong population. The contradiction between Beijing’s demands and the public’s demands will continue. I do not expect Carrie Lam to risk her position by following the demands of the Hong Kong people.

Aaron Yang CMC '17Student Journalist
Featured Image in public domain.
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