Author: Douglas Bulloch
Posted on: Forbes, March 26th, 2017
In a time of political upsets, perhaps the least surprising political development yet has been the emergence of Carrie Lam as the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, People’s Republic of China. The process by which this took place was through aggregating the votes of 1,194 Hong Kong notables in what was referred to as an “election,” though that should be taken under advisement.
The two prominent candidates, Carrie Lam and John Tsang were both described as “non-partisan” and examining their policy commitments could have left the undecided voter even more undecided. The key political question concerning the method for the future selection of the Chief Executive (the catalyst for the 2013 “yellow umbrella” protests) attracted similar positions from both candidates. Each proposed a cautious approach with plenty of consultation, but both nonetheless indicated that Beijing’s proposals cannot be ignored. The outlier was the third candidate, Woo Kwok-Hing, who advocated an expanding nomination committee, eventually to include over 3 million voters by 2032.
What do the Hong Kong people think?
Gauging public opinion is a hazardous task in Hong Kong, but small sample polls (here’s one conducted by HKU) indicated in advance that public support was strongest for John Tsang, the former finance minister. Studying his policy commitments leaves few clues to why this was exactly, as there really wasn’t much between him and Beijing’s acknowledged favorite, Carrie Lam. Although herein lies the biggest clue. The third candidate, Woo Kwok-Hing, proposed the more radical policy initiatives, but given both that he came in last, and was regarded as the least popular, it would appear there was little appetite for real change at any level of Hong Kong society. Hong Kong people are commercially minded realists for the most part, and much as they may mistrust Beijing, boat rocking does not come easily to them.
If it is not policy differences that drove this “selection” it more likely came down to whether the electors were content for their choice to be the consequence of a “strong suggestion” from Beijing. And clearly, given the result, they were. Hong Kong is one of the world’s richest cities after all, and China could easily make life very difficult for its richest and most influential citizens. But the public backing for John Tsang also revealed a level of discontent among the people of Hong Kong over Beijing’s increasing interference in Hong Kong’s affairs, supposedly protected by the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.
Indeed, there was little in Tsang’s policy platform that would be regarded as remotely controversial. He is a fairly standard, business friendly figure, of a sort that Beijing might easily have found easy to work with. However, Beijing had spoken, and Hong Kong is expected to tow the line.
Since the 2013 protests, the conventional political observer would be hard pressed to identify a clear program of political action that could clarify and explain the prevailing discontent in Hong Kong. There is a widespread desire for more democracy, but also plenty of opposition to this suggestion. Instead, dispute seems to centre on the tougher question of identity, of whether Hong Kong is distinct from China, or just a small part of a centralizing whole. During the protests, the old colonial flag made a brief appearance, but did not catch on as a symbol of anything in particular. Today however, the phrase “Hong Kong is not China” makes a frequent appearance on protest signs, but again, seems to express an idea of Hong Kong in terms of what it is not, rather than a sense of what it really means to be a citizen of Hong Kong.
This idea of being caught between worlds was neatly captured in a series of football games between Hong Kong and China in 2015, where the Hong Kong fans committed the unpardonable sin of booing the Chinese national anthem. Afterwards, some Chinese commentators openly suggested that Hong Kong should have let China win as it would be unpatriotic to do otherwise.
Layers of Symbolism
John Tsang, however, regularly attends football matches and unlike CY Leung–the incumbent Chief Executive–is happy to cheer for Hong Kong, even against China, thus incurring the disapproval of the more nationalist elements of the Chinese media. So far as anyone can tell, this simple act of defiance is probably what explains Tsang’s popularity.
Although, therefore, Jon Tsang’s relative appeal seems to be largely symbolic, Carrie Lam’s victory is even more so. An uninspiring figure, but crucially supported by Beijing, secured the votes of 777–a number with a symbolic significance altogether more amusing–of Hong Kong’s richest and most influential citizens, all happy to symbolically remind the population of their own, very real, impotence.