A pro-Beijing election committee picked Leung Chun-ying to head the next Hong Kong government Sunday, after an acrimonious and scandal-marred campaign. With Hong Kong people unable to vote, and both Leung and early favorite Henry Tang failing to gain broad public support, thousands of people took to the streets during the count to demand universal suffrage and to protest against Beijing’s perceived manipulation of the result.
The 1,200-member committee appointed to select Hong Kong’s chief executive comprises politicians, special interest groups and tycoons. Many are indebted to the Chinese government for their position and livelihood.
Pro-Beijing leftists and trade unionists on the committee threw their weight behind Leung, a surveyor who has irked those property developers entitled to vote in the election by advocating steps to rein in soaring housing costs.
Tang, the former head of the civil service and son of a wealthy Shanghai industrialist, found his core support among the committee’s tycoons.
As politicians and billionaires cast their votes, more than 2,000 members of the public protested outside the polling station. Christopher Lam is chairman of the action group, People Power.
“The Beijing government is very worried the Hong Kong model of freedom of speech will spread around China, and that’s why they handpicked C.Y. Leung - because they believe only a hardliner can suppress all these protests, all these voices in Hong Kong,” said Lam.
The election campaign was marred by allegations of marital infidelity by Tang and corruption charges against both men. Francis Moriarty, political correspondent with Hong Kong public broadcaster, RTHK, notes the scandals caused indignation, and not merely among Hong Kong’s disenfranchised public.
“Nobody comes out of this a winner. I think Beijing knew these divisions, if allowed to go on, were going to get deeper and deepe," said Moriarty. "Not only social divisions in Hong Kong, but in the leftist movement itself - between different tycoons, between grassroots and wealthy people.”
Aware of the public backlash against Tang in particular and fearing civic unrest, Beijing last week made clear to election committee members that it had switched its support to Leung.
With Liberal Party politicians threatening to spoil their ballots, the election had been expected to go two rounds Sunday, and potentially to a second vote in May.
Dixon Sing of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology says he was as surprised as anyone when Leung won a clear majority in the first round, with 689 votes to Tang’s 285.
“The influence of Beijing has been much greater than I expected," said Sing. "Definitely, Hong Kong seems to be under greater control of the mainland given the high profile interference in this election and the close association between C.Y. and Beijing.”
The Beijing government called the election “open, fair and just.” However, its meddling has sparked fears that one of Leung’s first acts might be to re-introduce a Beijing-backed sedition law that Tung Chee-hwa's administration was unable to push through in 2003.
In his victory speech, Leung addressed concerns he would erode the autonomy Hong Kong has enjoyed since its return to China in 1997 - freedoms enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution under the principle of “one country, two systems”.
“The election reaffirmed [our] core values: the rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, the press and assembly," said Leung. "To the people I solemnly pledge that the freedoms and rights they enjoy today will be maintained under my administration.”
As Leung spoke, politicians from the League of Social Democrats yelled demands for electoral reform. On the street, protesters simultaneously broke through a police cordon and attempted to storm the building.
Businessman Allan Zeman, who supported Tang, was one of many to intimate that China exerted undue influence on the poll. He called on China to uphold its promise to implement universal suffrage before the next chief executive election in 2017.
“Hopefully in 2017 we can have universal suffrage when everybody can really vote ... This was very disappointing," he said. "I think many people feel cheated.”
Protest season is fast approaching in Hong Kong, starting with the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Weeks later, the annual July 1 Establishment Day protest takes place.
Commentators suggest that, if Leung is to survive in office until 2017, he will need to build popular support sooner rather than later.