Tea Leaf Nation

Heads, Beijing Wins. Tails, Hong Kong Loses.

Heads, Beijing Wins. Tails, Hong Kong Loses.

Pity the political junkies of China. The country has one measly party with any power. The legislative sessions are numbing in their stilted ritual. Discussion (if any) happens outside public view. Unity appears through ideological homogeneity and even through an informal grooming code: parliamentary hairdos are surprisingly similar, with their sweeping poofs and black shoe-polish tint. With no filibusters or clashing caucuses, mainland Chinese citizens are treated to a consistent, unanimous hum.

In past years, mainland Chinese could get at least a second-hand electoral fix by watching the raucous party feuds emerging from Hong Kong, a former British colony that became Chinese territory in 1997. Yet, as a March 26 election is expected to select a Beijing-approved bureaucrat, the political brawlers of the city’s famed realpolitik seem to have lost their moxie. In the six months since a record number of voters cast ballots in legislative races, many residents say they are politically exhausted. Street protests, once a staple of the pro-democracy movement, are thin. During a visit to the city in January, this reporter met with lawmakers and activists who seemed spent after repeated intrusions in the past year by Beijing into the city’s political life. In late 2014, some residents wanted democracy so badly that they camped on a highway for 74 days; this winter many young people spoke of moving abroad. They seem resigned to a political future ruled from the north.

A recent two-week-long poll concerning candidates for chief executive engaged just 65,000 participants, far below the one million that organizers desired. (A similar exercise in 2014 that asked residents to choose an electoral reform system drew almost 800,000.) One new lawmaker, Nathan Law, a former student activist, said he intends to boycott the balloting. “There is some fatigue from the protest. There’s a sense of helplessness,” Law told Foreign Policy in January. “We don’t have the experience of a huge protest, a huge defeat, after a huge mobilization and a fight against autocracy.” It will take time, he said, to bounce back.

It’s been clear for nearly three years that this would be a bitter election experience for city residents. 2017 was supposed to mark the first time in city history that Hong Kong adults would directly elect their leader, ditching the byzantine electoral system designed by the British that has empowered professional and trade groups over regular voters. But Beijing threw a wrench in the reform plans. The announcement in 2014 that China’s legislature would screen and control three nominees, at most, ignited a massive street occupation. The fury convinced the legislature’s pro-democracy bloc to veto a plan for universal suffrage. As a result, the much-hated system of functional constituencies lives on. On March 26, 1,194 people representing lawyers, manufacturers, transport companies, farmers and fishermen will act on behalf of 7.3 million residents in choosing the city’s leader. (The public’s electoral muscle flexes solely in legislative and district elections.)

Many residents cheered in December when the much-reviled chief executive, C.Y. Leung, said he would not seek another five-year term. (Leung cited family concerns, but observers noted an ongoing investigation into a $6.4 million payment he accepted while in office.) Three candidates now seek his job. While one has surged in the popular polls, Beijing appears to favor another candidate, Carrie Lam, the former chief secretary, the city government’s second-in-command.

Lam showed that she has deep support among the pro-China elite when she collected 580 nominations from the election committee. A longtime civil servant, Lam can appear efficient, even frosty. Her reputation plunged during the 2014 democracy strike, since one of her jobs then was to trumpet the administration’s Beijing-backed elections plan. When Lam, a former student activist herself, withdrew an invitation to meet with student protest leaders, critics tarred her as a Beijing puppet. Democracy activists say that a Lam administration would mimic Leung’s. During “C.Y. 2.0” there would be no progress toward achieving democracy, said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy politician. Lam would be “even worse than C.Y. Leung,” Mo said. “C.Y. Leung is crude and transparent — you can see through him. But Carrie Lam is, to borrow a Chinese phrase, a ‘smiling tiger.’ She’ll eat you up with a smiling face.”

Many of Lam’s opponents, and most Hong Kongers who’ve been polled, favor John Tsang, the former financial secretary. A graduate of Harvard and MIT, Tsang enjoys backing from 98 percent of electors who seek a democratic Hong Kong. It’s not so much Tsang’s platform — to maintain Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” promised 20 years ago — or his affable, easy-going style that has drawn support. Some backers say Tsang’s success would ensure that the failures of the current administration are not repeated, pushing democracy further toward the backburner.

Most of the chief executive electors, though, are business people whose livelihoods depend on Beijing’s favor. Given that registered voters can’t cast ballots in this race, it hardly matters that the majority of residents have told several pollsters that they prefer Tsang. Two-thirds of those questioned by the Hong Kong-based English newspaper South China Morning Post acknowledged that Beijing prefers Lam, which gives her the better odds of winning.

The third candidate in the race, Woo Kwok-hing, is a former High Court justice who retired in 2012. Personable, and with a platform that strives to re-launch election reform and check the chief executive’s power, Woo is popular among some young people. Observers say he has little chance.

Much of the pall that shrouds Hong Kong’s democracy activists can be traced to the last few months, when Beijing intruded into local politics. As more young politicians talked last year about independence from China, Beijing officials labeled them law-breakers and separatists. After two new, pro-independence lawmakers disparaged China during their official oaths, Leung’s administration petitioned the Hong Kong courts to eject them. (Many residents said they were convinced that Beijing dictated the unusual move.) China’s legislature issued a rare legal ruling on Nov. 7 that sought to squelch secession talk and effectively tossed the legislative pair from office. (Shortly after, the two lost their case in the lower courts; they await a final appeal.) The Hong Kong government later asked the courts to bar four more pro-democracy lawmakers for not reciting their official oaths as written. In a hearing, the four argued that they were the victims of selective prosecution. A decision is pending.

In recent weeks, Beijing sought to remind Hong Kong residents that they are not in charge. In a departure from past practice, Beijing invited Leung to join the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a mainland political advisory body, before he left office. Critics have questioned the propriety of having Hong Kong’s leader serve the city and the national government at the same time.

Then, during the mainland’s National People’s Congress in March, officials warned Hong Kong residents to rethink their priorities. NPC chief Zhang Dejiang said Hong Kong must put its economic needs before “street politics,” or be overtaken by the manufacturing hub of Shenzhen. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang blasted calls for an independent Hong Kong.

With no voice in the race, but skin in the game, some Hong Kongers have chronicled Lam’s gaffes. Democracy activists savaged her for green-lighting a local version of Beijing’s Palace Museum, a project not mooted in public; Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating the deal. She was ridiculed when she likened online criticism of her to “white terror.” By contrast, Hong Kongers use that term to describe overbearing government pressure, such as the legal challenges against lawmakers who could lose their seats. Organizers are trying to rally residents to protest what they call the “small circle” vote. Several activists have said that the public is tired of street protests. “I’m afraid people don’t know the weight of the vote and won’t come out to resist, even though their rights are being damaged,” Law, the lawmaker, told FP.

On election day, in the absence of popular participation, pushback may be mostly symbolic. On March 26, artists known as the Add Oil Team plan to collect Facebook live broadcasts showing city residents who cannot vote, to “show the world the ongoing undemocratic election in Hong Kong.” Some pro-democracy lawmakers, who can vote in the chief executive race, have said they would boycott the vote to deny a mandate to the winner. “Beijing wants the new CE to get more than 900 votes, to give him high legitimacy,” pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu said in January.

Leung managed to win with just 689 of 1,200 votes cast in 2012. During the democracy occupation in 2014, the number “689” adorned posters and protest paraphernalia, a visual shorthand for the wrath felt toward the system and the man. His successor will be expected to address the elections setup, provide more housing, shore up civic freedoms, and address concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy. Many residents don’t believe that the next chief executive will have the power to fix these things. Whoever wins, there’s little doubt among Hong Kongers that their new leader will perform Beijing’s bidding.

Reporting for this article was supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

Photo credit: Getty Images