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See the shiny new CEO:
a tale of two cities

The Hong Kong chief executive ballot is a SAR-Beijing ballet without much nuance or subtlety. After “daddy” annoints its man, what then?

By STEPHEN VINES
Hong Kong, February 2012

Hong Kong Chief Executive candidate and former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Henry Tang at a campaign rally

Hong Kong chief executive candidate and former Hong Kong chief secretary Henry Tang at a campaign rally in Hong Kong. - Photo: Getty Images

ANYONE who loves the theatre of the absurd will not miss Hong Kong’s 'election' for the chief executive in March 2012. Let’s stop right there because a true connoisseur of things absurd will already have noticed something interesting. Where else in the world is the head of government given the business-sounding title of chief executive? The answer is nowhere because who seriously believes that the person in charge of the government is somehow performing the same function as the head of a corporation? Yet this was precisely what the Chinese government had in mind when it created this post in 1997 after the last of the British governors of Hong Kong departed.

And so the first occupant of the post was Tung Chee-hwa, the former Chief Executive of the shipping line OOCL who was 'elected' by a mere 400 largely handpicked voters who formed the Election Committee. Poor old Tung actually believed that running a company and running Hong Kong was the same thing. He was a disaster and had to be replaced mid-way through his second term of office.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines


The reality is that the public has no say in the outcome of this poll because the electorate now consists of 1,200 people out of a population of over 7 million (ie slightly less than 0.01 percent of the population)

His replacement was Donald Tsang, a dyed in the wool bureaucrat, who had busied himself making the transformation from being a faithful servant of the British colonialists into becoming a more loyal than loyal servant of the new masters. The wise men in Beijing did not quite trust him but realised that a corporate chief might not, after all, be what they wanted and they quite liked the way the new incumbent showed a quite zealous willingness to tremble and obey.

Tsang came to office floating on a sea of goodwill as the cry for “anyone but Tung” resounded throughout Hong Kong. However it did not take Tsang long to squander this support. He is now about to depart and another so-called election is underway.

At this point things get seriously weird because on the surface this kind-of looks like a real election. There are three candidates; they go out on the streets to solicit support and the media covers their activities just like they would in a real election.

But the reality is that the public has no say in the outcome of this poll because the electorate now consists of 1,200 people out of a population of over 7 million (ie slightly less than 0.01 percent of the population). In the previous chief executive election a mere 800 people were allowed to vote and the addition of another 400 was billed as a major victory for democracy.

Some of these special voters joined the Election Committee after being elected by occupational groups but the majority are either office holders or appointees put in place to ensure that the government has a safe majority.

Not only are the majority of members pro-government but they are notable for doing what they are told in all circumstances. In previous so-called elections Beijing indicated its preferred candidate and the electors clamoured to support him. This time around Beijing appears to have given the nod to Henry Tang, who served as the government’s chief secretary, the number two post in the administration. His main rival is Leung Chun-ying, a long-term pro-China activist and businessman who chaired the Executive Council, a body that vaguely resembles a cabinet in a normal government system but in Hong Kong is largely advisory and despite the name 'executive', the non-bureaucrat members have no executive function in government.

Tang, the gangling scion of a rich Shanghainese family has the reputation of a sunny disposition and dons an almost permanent fixed grin. Unfortunately, however, he is also known for being rather lazy and none too bright. His father has good political connections in Beijing and on paper he seemed to be an ideal candidate who combined business and political experience. Moreover, and this is important for the gray men in Beijing, he is not a Cantonese. There is enduring suspicion of the Southern Chinese running their own provinces in China because they are suspected of nurturing separatist tendencies.

His main opponent, Leung, also happens to be unusually tall and is not Cantonese, but comes from a far more modest background and is a self made man with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. He may be rather more cerebral than his opponent but is hard to warm to, which is why he is often described as a “wolf”, a somewhat scary and belligerent character.

There is in fact a third runner in the race, Albert Chan, a chubby and affable lawyer who chairs Hong Kong’s main opposition Democratic Party. Although he has strong support from members of the election committee who gained their places through a process of election, they are in a distinct minority so he has absolutely no chance of winning and is only there for propaganda purposes.

While people like Tsang and Tang only became converts to the new order once it became clear that the British were on the way out, people like Leung supported the Chinese Communist Party long before it became fashionable to do so. China has, largely speaking, been miserly in rewarding their support as jobs and honours have been generously sprinkled on the newer converts who it was deemed important to get onside. Meanwhile the long-time friends were not entirely ignored but told to wait on the sidelines. In other words they have been taken for granted.

Leung is the first of their number to become a serious contender for the top job. However he suffers from a clutch of liabilities. First up is that he is relatively independently minded, a quality not admired in Beijing. Secondly, he is much feared by local bureaucrats who have been busy telling the masters in Beijing that his ascendency will cause problems. And thirdly, Leung has surrounded himself with some less than universally popular high-level supporters, notably the businessman Ronnie Chan, an avid advocate of non-democratic government but widely disliked for his arrogance and self-promotion.

There is a chance
that the Mandate of Heaven will swing in Leung’s direction.
He is, after all, a Communist Party fellow traveller although he publicly denies being a party member

Least expected was the way the bizarre election campaign developed as Leung decided to behave as if this were a genuine election and succeeded in winning considerable public support. The very most that can be said for previous 'elections' was that the winner managed to attract majority public support and thus an argument could be made that the small band of voters in the Election Committee were doing little more than reflecting public opinion. This cannot be said in the current election where Tang trails badly in the opinion polls. Worse still, he ducks debate with his main opponent and seems intent on stirring up apathy wherever he goes.

Lurking in the background are swelling rumours that the already published news about Tang’s marital infidelity is not the whole story and there is more to come at a moment when it could inflict maximum damage. And while he’s out on the campaign trail, his minders frequently have to plunge into damage control mode as he stumbles and misunderstands his brief.

There is thus a chance that the Mandate of Heaven will swing in Leung’s direction. He is, after all, a Communist Party fellow traveller although he publicly denies being a party member. Meanwhile, in the typically brutal manner that the party deals with outsiders, Tang will simply be shunned and probably given some meaningless post as a consolation prize.

However should the authorities in Beijing be determined to install Tang as the new chief executive this will only happen because the Election Committee is stacked with members who like to obey orders. But a price will have to be paid because as a result of this rather odd election campaign Beijing will need to publicly foist the more unpopular candidate on the people of Hong Kong.

Moreover, in line with a pledge of gradual progress towards democracy, the next election for the chief executive in 2017 might involve universal suffrage and there is even the prospect of a fully democratically elected legislature by 2020. However Hong Kong’s non-elected elite are closely working with Beijing officials to find a way of ensuring that these promises of democracy are severely circumscribed to ensure that parties and personalities seen as unacceptable by the Chinese Communist Party will not be able to assume power.

The issue is that if China has problems properly stage-managing an election with a mere 1,200 voters, how on earth is it to control a real open poll? And if it blatantly manipulates the promise of free and fair elections into a corner where the popular will cannot be expressed what response can be expected from a population that has never shown itself shy about pouring into the streets in protest?

Clearly with Henry Tang at the helm, a behind-the-scenes strongman will be required to make things work but as China discovered in pushing Tung Chee-hwa into the top job, it is not easy to get anything to work when the leader is so obviously helpless. If, on the other hand, Leung is allowed to take the rudder, he will certainly be more able to steer the vessel but many fear that his years of allegiance to the Communist Party will merely serve to ensure that he takes an unflinching course regardless of the consequences.

There is a paucity of good outcomes of this election either for Hong Kong or for its masters in Beijing. Maybe this realisation will force China to do something really unusual, which is to allow the members of the Election Committee to make up their own minds but most of these poor souls have little experience of acting unilaterally – once deprived of orders they will hardly know what to do.


Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong based journalist, writer and businessman. He is the presenter of a weekly current affairs television programme – The Pulse – broadcast in HK and is a commentator with newspapers and a number of international radio and TV stations. Vines was the Deputy Business Editor of The Observer and has worked for the The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and the New York-based Daily Deal. He is the author of a number of books including Hong Kong: China’s New Colony and a study of the Asian financial crisis called The Years of Living Dangerously. His latest book, Market Panic was republished in 2008. Stephen Vines was the founding Chief Editor of Eastern Express, a mould-breaking daily newspaper published in Hong Kong. He was also a founder and publisher of the satirical Spike magazine.

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Barbara Dingwall (12 April, 2012) – UK
Oh dear, Stephen... a slip of your pen. Not Albert Chan, but Albert HO, (two more unalike men I can't imagine) - see your senior moment quoted below from your article: "There is in fact a third runner in the race, Albert Chan, a chubby and affable lawyer who chairs Hong Kong’s main opposition Democratic Party." Poor Albert Ho.

Still, no slip you may make could detract from our love of your brilliant persistence, wit and courage on HK TV and in print - when we lived in the outer darkness of China 2002-2009 and you were a shining light for integrity and intellectual freedom. THANKS FOR THAT. When our TV wasn't being jammed, we hung on your every word.

Please NEVER turn coat, like so many have done to genuflect before Goliath up north. – This comment has been edited
concerned citizen (26 February, 2012) – Shanghai
This article tells it like it is. Just when you thought calmer times were emerging, the Henry Tang mess gets messier and messier. I'm not sure which is worse. Tang's refusal to admit he may have been in error on his underground palace? Or his refusal to step down from the race even when faced with mounting evidence of eroded public backing?
Peter Lam (17 February, 2012) – HK
Hong Kong deserves better than this. The city has enterprise and guts. Why cannot it be allowed to choose its own leaders?
James Bingham (14 February, 2012) – United Kingdom
I have always wondered why Hong Kong never pushed for self rule after the British departed. Perhaps it was never an option. But it is a shame to see a great city like this cast into servitude. Strong visionary leaders enable dynamism, ideas and momentum. Puppets fail to work in the real interests of their own people. It would be good to see Hong Kong elect its own. The city is certainly capable of exercising its franchise maturely and in a sober manner.
C K Ho (13 February, 2012) – Hong Kong
All I can say about Henry Tang that he always has a smile. This is not good qualification for Chief Executive. HK has difficult road ahead. We need a man with [strong vision] to guide us. This cannot happen if Beijing takes decisions [from the outside].

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