Election Fever: A Major Event in Hong Kong’s Political Evolution

Frank Ching
Frank Ching Senior Columnist, South China Morning Post; CNAPS Advisory Council Member

April 1, 2007

In March, Hong Kong caught election fever. Newspapers reported day after day on the campaign for Chief Executive, in which the two contenders were the incumbent, Donald Tsang, and his challenger, legislator Alan Leong, a prominent lawyer and former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association. Millions of people watched the two men debating on television—twice—the first such debates in Hong Kong history.

And yet, oddly, ordinary members of the public had no right to vote. Only the 795 members of the Election Committee could vote. And, on Election Day, they decided to give a five-year term to Tsang, who won in a landslide, with 649 votes to 123 for Leong.

The outcome of the election was never in doubt—Leong himself said he was not in the race to win, but just to make sure that there was a contest.

While the first election for chief executive, held at the end of 1996, was contested, the two subsequent elections, in 2002 and 2005, were one-horse races. That is why, even though the poll was limited to a few hundred individuals and dismissed by members of Hong Kong’s democratic camp as a “small circle” election, many members of the public were caught up in the excitement.

Both contestants realized that genuine legitimacy did not lie with the Election Committee but with the public. Tsang, when he announced his candidacy on February 1, made it clear that while he needed a majority of votes in the Election Committee, he wanted even more to get at least 60 percent support from the nonvoting public.

In the end, he got both. According to a survey conducted by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program on March 23, two days before the election, in answer to the question “If you were to vote for the Chief Executive tomorrow, which one would you choose?”, 81 percent of respondents chose Mr. Tsang, with 14.1 percent picking Mr. Leong.

Interestingly, the Election Committee votes rather closely paralleled public sentiment. Mr. Tsang’s 649 votes represented 82 percent of Election Committee members who voted, while Mr. Leong’s 123 votes represented 15.6 percent.

These figures may be somewhat reassuring to Beijing because they suggest that even if the contest were not confined to the Election Committee, its candidate, Tsang, would have won. It is assumed that Chinese leaders would not oppose universal suffrage if they felt sure that the candidate they support will always win. The solution, it would seem, would be for them to back the most popular candidate each time. The public opinion surveys are also interesting because, although Mr. Leong was the better debater—he was the clear winner of the first debate on March 1 while the two men were tied in the second debate on March 15—his popularity did not rise to any appreciable extent.

This suggests that, in the minds of many people, debating skills and the ability to run the government are not identical.

Mr. Leong’s training as a barrister may well have equipped him with better debating skills, as he launched a multitude of one-liners that viewers appreciated. For example, in discussing economic policy, Mr. Leong castigated his opponent for abandoning “positive non-interventionism,” which was used to describe the government’s laissez faire policy.

In the end, the public found Mr. Tsang’s 40 years of government service more appealing than Mr. Leong’s verbal attacks. The result was highly ironic. In an undemocratic system, the public chose through opinion polls the candidate that met their requirements for competence but also, it so happened, met Beijing’s need for political reliability. Which raises the question, why couldn’t that same outcome have occurred in a “big circle” election under universal suffrage?

It is not because the democratic camp hasn’t asked. Mr. Leong’s main election strategy,was to focus on the undemocratic nature of the current system. He called for “double universal suffrage” in 2012, when both the chief executive and the Legislative Council will be chosen.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution promulgated by China’s National People’s Congress, declares that the “ultimate aim” is the election of both the chief executive and the entire legislature through universal suffrage. Currently, half of the 60 legislators are directly elected while the others are elected by functional constituencies, such as professional and commercial bodies and trade unions.

The Basic Law stipulated the number of directly elected legislators from 1997 to 2007, leading up to the current 30. This fact led many to propose that universal suffrage be adopted in elections after 2007. However, in 2004, Beijing vetoed this idea with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee issuing a Decision saying that the method of universal suffrage “shall not be applied” in the chief executive election of 2007 or the legislative election of 2008.

As a result, members of the democratic camp have focused on 2012—the next date—as the year when universal suffrage should be realized. Beijing has not made any pronouncements on the issue, but it is generally believed that Beijing considers 2012 as still being a bit too early.

Chinese leaders’ assertions that Hong Kong is not ready for full democracy are not persuasive, given that the sophisticated city is an international financial center whose per capita GDP is higher than that of Britain, its former colonial master. However, Beijing is undoubtedly concerned about the impact of democracy in Hong Kong upon the mainland.

Cities, such as Shanghai, may well feel that if Hong Kong can choose its leaders through free elections, they should be able to do so too. And the last thing that Beijing wants is the emergence of a strong democratic movement on the mainland.

Nonetheless, the question of universal suffrage for Hong Kong must be tackled, sooner or later. And Tsang, as a campaign promise, pledged that he would resolve the issue “thoroughly” during his term of office. This suggests that, even if Hong Kong does not enjoy universal suffrage in 2012, there will be a roadmap and a timetable by then.

Tsang has repeatedly said that it is not enough to ask for democracy but that there has to be consensus on a specific model of government that he can then take to Beijing. He has promised that he will issue a consultation document called a green paper in mid-2007, when the public will be asked their views of various models.

After that, he said, the government will choose a mainstream model with at least 60 percent public support and consult the central government in Beijing.

It isn’t clear how Tsang will choose the models to be presented to the public in the green paper. It also isn’t clear how he will then focus on a “mainstream” model to discuss with Beijing.

Equally unclear is how the central government might feel about having its hand forced in this way. But Tsang Hin-chi, a Hong Kong businessman who is a member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, provided a possible hint of Beijing’s attitude by praising Tsang for not passing on problems to whoever his successor might be.

Besides, sooner or later Beijing will have to grasp the nettle. It simply cannot issue a decision before each election declaring that universal suffrage “shall not be applied.” Such an action will make China a laughing stock in the international community and will arouse widespread resentment within Hong Kong as well.

Actually, while Beijing may not realize it, Leong was instrumental in conferring a degree of legitimacy on the election this year, with all the trappings of a real election.

At the same time, however, Leong raised the level of political consciousness in Hong Kong, pounding in the fact day after day that the average person has no vote. Now, the demand for democracy is even stronger than before and it is not something that Beijing can stave off indefinitely.

Leong himself has raised his profile to such an extent that he is likely to be seen as the new leader of the democratic camp, eclipsing Martin Lee, another barrister and former chairman of the Bar Association, who will turn 70 next year.

Leong is a member of the newly created Civic Party, which to some extent has eclipsed the Democratic Party, of which Lee was the founding chairman. The Civic Party is widely seen as the embodiment of talent and hope while the Democratic Party is seen as being on the decline. In recent days, there has been talk of a possible merger.

The democratic camp is not totally united. Some members, such as the fiery Emily Lau, remain adamantly opposed to participation in the “small circle” elections but the majority made a huge effort this time to get sympathizers elected onto the Election Committee so as to ensure that Leong would get the 100 nominations from committee members needed to become a formal candidate.

The impact of the election on Tsang has been interesting. As a result of his experience, he seems much more committed to the idea of full democracy than previously. In his victory speech, he declared: “The last two months on the campaign trail have been the most rewarding chapter of my 40-year career in public service.”

“I met with all sorts of people, from the richest to the poorest in our society, listening to their stories and sharing their aspirations for a better future,” he said, adding: “The community has treated the process seriously. The public has been thoroughly engaged throughout. Simplistic slogans have not replaced careful deliberation. The maturity of Hong Kong people has been demonstrated throughout the electoral process. This has laid out a solid foundation for moving toward universal suffrage.”

The 2007 election for chief executive was a major event in Hong Kong’s political evolution. It has changed the political culture. It is now Donald Tsang’s job to convince the Beijing leadership that Hong Kong people are mature enough to be trusted with the vote. That will not be easy.