Hong Kong elections: why the next chief executive may no longer be known by 3 digits, such as ‘689’ for CY Leung, or Carrie Lam’s ‘777’

In the first of a three-part special, the Post looks at the lead-up to the Election Committee polls this Sunday, with pro-Beijing insiders hailing the selection process so far as a success, noting two more major polls for the city are likely to follow this formula of controlled competition.

Hong Kong residents have a well-known habit of giving nicknames to their leaders.

Leung Chun-ying, elected in 2012, is referred to as “689” while his successor Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is at times called “777”. The figures represent the number of ballots secured from a small circle of 1,200 voters tasked with picking the chief executive of the financial hub.

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If the tradition continues, then the sobriquet for the leader to be chosen in March will run into four digits after Beijing overhauled the city’s electoral system, sources told the Post.

Carrie Lam celebrates her win in 2017 in Hong Kong’s leadership race. Photo: Robert Ng

The changes have sharply increased the influence of the pro-government camp in the Election Committee, which has grown by 300 seats – making them kingmakers in a new “patriotic” sector.

The revamp would all but ensure most votes would go to the central government’s favoured candidate, the pro-Beijing insiders said. In a nutshell, there will be no split within the pro-establishment camp and absolutely no chance of an opposition bloc playing its hand to side with one candidate, as had happened in previous polls.

There would be one more feature this time, a source said: “Beijing will only provide clearer hints on who their preferred candidate is at the last minute.”

He explained how it would play out: “There can be only one or two candidates at most, but the second one will only serve as a token competitor receiving very few votes.”

Hong Kong Election Committee hopefuls stick with bland slogans, no manifestos

Selecting the city’s chief executive will be the final step of the whole electoral overhaul process now rolling out, starting with the formation of a new Election Committee at polls on Sunday, and then a contest for seats in the Legislative Council this December.

Nominations for the enlarged Election Committee closed last month, and three-quarters of the seats were either uncontested or filled by appointed members. The Sunday elections will be for just 364 seats in 13 of the committee’s 40 subsectors representing different professions and trades, involving 4,889 voters. This is in stark contrast to 232,915 voters casting their ballots for 748 seats in the 2016 committee polls.

Ballots being presented on stage at the last chief executive election in 2017. Photo: Sam Tsang

Under Beijing’s shake-up, the committee has also been tasked with nominating every candidate for the December Legco polls. The legislature has been given 20 more seats taking the total to 90, with the Election Committee also able to field its own representatives among the 40 candidates it will choose.

If Sunday’s voting proceeds smoothly, Beijing is expected to next concentrate on choosing these lawmakers either through a list of nominations or special guidance from the Election Committee’s fifth sector that serves as the most trusted gatekeeper, according to two sources with ties to mainland China.

Hong Kong’s legislature has been expanded by 20 seats, taking the total to 90. Photo: May Tse

In the lead-up to Sunday, pro-Beijing supporters and analysts have described the “experiment” in the Election Committee nominations as a success as all 40 subsectors, together with an official vetting committee, were able to fill the body with “patriots” while still preserving “elements of an election”. This “successful” formula would be used for all elections, sources said.

But some admitted the process of choosing candidates for the new 1,500-member body had not been as smooth as it seemed, as infighting among different interest groups did erupt within the pro-establishment camp. That experience made plain, according to the sources, that Beijing would have more instructions for the coming Legco elections.

The risk of further infighting has become greater for the Legco polls after the near total collapse of the opposition camp following the central government’s imposition of a national security law in June last year, and a more stringent loyalty test for office holders. Most of the opposition lawmakers had quit Legco, and just as many if not more in the bloc have been held or jailed in cases relating to the new law, or for involvement in unauthorised protests.

Hong Kong’s Democratic Party shrugs off unseating of opposition lawmaker

The challenge for Beijing would be to inject some modicum of controlled competition, said analysts, much in the same way as how it handled the Election Committee selection process.

“There could be competition, but only in a limited way, as Beijing would not like to see different camps fighting among each other for seats or power like in the past,” said Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank. “All of these elections should result in building a better government in implementing policies under the support of the pro-establishment parties.”

But liberal scholars painted a starker, gloomier picture of Beijing being prepared to only have pliant elites hold political power to ensure its desired outcome for all three coming polls. However the authorities chose to present the changes, residents were being saddled with “a new form of corporatist authoritarianism”, they argued.

Grappling with a new framework

The political shake-up came nine months after Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in a bid to prevent any repeat of the often-violent anti-government protests that erupted in 2019. The Election Committee was fundamentally transformed by scrapping all 117 seats filled by district councillors from the organisations that handle neighbourhood affairs, and historically dominated by the opposition.

Seats occupied by district councillors on the Election Committee have been scrapped. Photo: Winson Wong

They were replaced by 156 members drawn from the area, crime-fighting and fire safety committees, all groups dominated by pro-establishment representatives. Beijing further extended its influence in the committee by ensuring all members of the new fifth sector came from national organisations or official bodies.

One effect was a drastic reduction in the number of seats decided by election.

Previously, individual voters decided 86 per cent of the seats. Now 967 seats, or 64 per cent, will be picked by specific organisations or companies, while the remaining 533 will be appointed or granted the position as ex officio members.

Every candidate must pass through the far-reaching vetting process to ensure the Election Committee and the legislature are “patriots” who will not pose a threat to national security.

In grappling with the framework, pro-establishment professionals and individuals teamed up to avoid too many seats being contested. Only 13 of the committee’s 40 subsectors garnered enough candidates to hold an election, with 412 hopefuls competing for 364 seats.

Election Committee’s ‘patriotic force’ set to dampen tycoons’ influence

A Post review found that along with seats set aside for appointed officials and several newly created subsectors tailor-made for the pro-establishment camp, the committee is packed with at least 1,006 Beijing loyalists, which will give the central government ultimate control over the selection of the next chief executive.

Just five years ago, the opposition camp formed a team called “Democrats 300+” and swept all seats in several subsectors, including education, higher education, legal, social welfare, information technology and health services.

Now, key opposition camp members have shown no interest in trying to secure a seat on the committee. If any did manage to win, they would have been so vastly outnumbered they would have been a token presence at best, but many expressed doubts they would even make it past a vetting process they believed was stacked against them.

Opposition member Cheng Chung-tai meets the media after losing his Legco seat. Photo: Nora Tam

The camp’s lone lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai, who as a Legco member is automatically given a spot on the Election Committee, was disqualified and lost his seat on the body after the candidate vetting committee doubted he could be relied upon to uphold the Basic Law.

Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the country’s top legislature, described the lead-up to the committee’s formation as “quite a success”, as some sectors were appointed, some were formed through negotiations, and some would be selected through elections.

“The overall spectrum has become wider [compared with the past] with more professionals and sectors able to participate,” he said, adding these elites would be capable of picking a competent leader.

Record number of Election Committee seats set to be filled uncontested

But liberal scholars were scathing in their appraisal of the revamp.

“This is not an election, it is a joke. We are moving further away from any form of democratic legitimacy,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Baptist University.

“The Chinese Communist Party has always been good at constructing an ideal representation of society based on a mostly uncontested selection of elite representatives designed by itself. This applies in particular to the [top political advisory body] Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

“In other words, the CCP-style of selection of obedient elites has now expanded to Hong Kong.”

Echoing Cabestan, Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London, agreed the creation of the next Election Committee had roughly been brought in line with the party’s preferred way of running so-called representative polls.

“It is to allow for a ‘free election’ as long as the result is known to it and approved by it beforehand. The composition of the new Election Committee and the process will ensure no one not approved of by the party can be a candidate, let alone win,” he said.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the country’s top legislature, calls the lead-up to Sunday’s polls ‘quite a success’. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

Conflict or cooperation?

Observers have warned the complete shift in power to the pro-establishment camp could create conflicts within the bloc. Sources earlier told the Post the wealthiest families behind the city’s biggest property conglomerates were informed by Beijing they would be restricted to having only two members each on the committee, a move which analysts saw as the central government’s attempt to reduce the tycoons’ influence on government policy and instil a sense of fair play in the business community.

To provide its own ballast against such power centres, Beijing added the 17-seat (third) commercial subsector to the committee which included some patriotic business leaders, such as China Overseas Property managing director Tony Yau Wai-kwong, Taiping Reinsurance deputy general manager Tommy Yiu Loi-man and China Resources Group’s chief strategy officer for the Greater Bay Area, Simon Lee Hoey.

Tycoons limited to ‘no more than 2’ family members on Election Committee

Other pro-establishment insiders revealed that to ensure some subsectors would go uncontested, heavyweights had stepped in to coordinate strategy to ensure the number of candidates were limited.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Leung Che-cheung, also president of the New Territories Association of Societies, helped to encourage some people seen as promising to participate in the 60-seat grass-roots associations subsector. Seats from this subsector ended up being uncontested, as the number of candidates nominated equalled the seats reserved for that subsector.

“Some members are not sure about the new rules, while others might be too eager and hope to represent the associations. We have to balance a bit and discuss with them,” he said.

One exception appears to be in the labour subsector, where 72 people will be competing for 60 seats. Some 51 of them are from the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), the city’s biggest labour body, followed by 15 candidates from the Federation of Hong Kong and Kowloon Labour Unions.

FTU chairman Wong Kwok argued that three pro-establishment labour unions were too many, and so “there is always competition within this subsector”.

“We hope to take around 45 to 50 seats, while leaving the remaining vacancies for the other unions,” he said, adding mutual trust among the various organisations left him confident they could avoid a split.

“I will also suggest winning candidates can write on some joint platform their expectations for the future chief executive,” he said.

A government banner in Sham Shui Po promoting the electoral reforms. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

In a move to show solidarity and boost public interest in the elections, Beijing’s liaison office prodded hundreds of prominent businessmen and loyalists to launch an outreach effort using street booths last weekend.

Political scientist Cabestan said he could see many, including among the pro-Beijing elites, being unhappy about the changes.

“We can see that the traditional Hong Kong elites, such as the tycoons, have been weakened in the committee to the benefit of new elites, especially the Beijing-supported United Front organisations’ representatives and new Hongkongers coming from the mainland who work in [fields] such as the banking and financial industries,” he said.

John Burns, a University of Hong Kong (HKU) political science professor, argued conflicts within the pro-establishment bloc might surface after the electoral overhaul, such as between the rich and poor like the property developers and grass-roots organisations. He cited examples such as private developers and indigenous land owners in the New Territories holding diverse views on the pace of development, while both have representatives in the Election Committee.

“The Chinese Communist Party can deliver smooth support in Legco for the government only if it coordinates and resolves these conflicts, much as the party does on the mainland. Smooth coordination of the legislature and executive is the essence of executive-led government, long the party’s objective in Hong Kong,” he said.

Closer to Beijing-style universal suffrage?

Following the committee elections, Beijing would either provide “a list” of 40 lawmakers or further instruct the fifth sector on who to nominate for the Legco elections, a pro-establishment source said.

The Election Committee will enjoy the biggest selection of Legco seats with 40 under its charge, while 30 seats will go to the trade-based functional constituencies, leaving the directly elected geographical constituencies with just 20, down from 35.

Legco hopefuls are required to secure at least two nominations each from all five of the Election Committee’s sectors, a new requirement which significantly raises the barriers to entry for opposition hopefuls.

Anthony Wu Ting-yuk, who as a member of the standing committee of the CPPCC will be an ex officio in the fifth sector, said he still believed opposition representatives would be able to win some nominations and run in direct elections as long as they were “patriotic, love the country and Hong Kong”.

Wu, who identified himself as “liberal pro-establishment”, said in April the central government would allow opposition members to fill some seats if they did not seek independence or foreign sanctions.

Education group vows to break opposition ‘monopoly’ on Election Committee subsector

Some analysts suspected that even if democrats were given a “green light”, they would get only five to 10 seats at most in the new Legco.

Lau said he believed Beijing could afford “real competition” to arise between political parties over committee seats, but not when it came to the chief executive election, as the central government would demand unity from the camp.

“This may also affect how Beijing picks the chief executive,” he said. “It has to be someone that can unify different parties and interests within the pro-establishment bloc.”

Once that election was settled, another source familiar with Beijing’s thinking said leaders in the capital had indicated the central government would conduct a postmortem to thoroughly examine the effectiveness of the overhaul, and decide whether there should be modifications for future polls.

“The overall structure will not be changed for at least a decade, but the composition, for example, seats within subsectors, might be added to or minimised. The central government will closely monitor the situation,” the source said. “Beijing might also plan ahead on the timetable to introduce universal suffrage in the city.”

Hong Kong elections overhaul will put pressure on pro-Beijing parties

In March, former Hong Kong leader Leung was the first prominent official to say the overhaul of the electoral system could create the right conditions to open up later and even pave the way for universal suffrage. But Leung did not mention what form that might be or set a timeline on when this could happen.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, states the city must ultimately elect the city’s leader by universal suffrage, though it does not set a date. It stipulates also that “the principle of gradual and orderly progress” should apply. Electing all Legco members by “one man, one vote”, is the ultimate aim.

HKU’s Burns also said competition between chief executive candidates might arise if the party someday granted universal suffrage, but this would only happen when there is trust that the social unrest of 2019 would not be repeated.

“The party doesn’t trust us now. Even with universal suffrage, the Chinese Communist Party is in the driver’s seat. I anticipate no unexpected results,” he said.

Cabestan, the Baptist University professor, said any form of “one man, one vote” in the future would end up as a Beijing-style universal suffrage, with clear limits set, much like in an original proposal for such reforms in 2014 which were eventually abandoned.

“But of course [the universal suffrage would be] based on the selection made by the Election Committee,” he said.

“Since the committee has become a rubber stamp which is in no position to challenge Beijing, there is not much danger in keeping the game open and having two lookalike pro-Beijing candidates run.”

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