Beijing's hand in polls is more of a ham fist

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2008, 12:00am

Hours before the Legislative Council election ended, then Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun reportedly made an urgent phone call to Gao Siren, Beijing's top official in Hong Kong, for help.

With defeat looming, Mr Tien is said to have asked Mr Gao to help canvass votes for Beijing-friendly Liberals in the geographical constituencies they were contesting. They were Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee in New Territories West; Mr Tien's brother, Michael Tien Puk-sun, in Kowloon West, as well as Mr Tien himself in New Territories East.

Revelations of the last-ditch plea to the director of the central government's liaison office has not stirred up much debate, probably because Beijing's involvement in the polls is already an open secret.

There were rumours, apparently not without some truth, that the liaison office's district office had actively solicited support for a self-proclaimed independent candidate, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, in Kowloon West.

It is widely believed that another 'independent', Scarlett Pong Oi-lan, had the blessing of the liaison office, in New Territories East. Another case in point is Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who ran in the Hong Kong Island constituency.

The candidature of these three political aspirants is seen as part of Beijing's strategy to groom a new batch of like-minded figures, who have no strong pro-Beijing image, for electoral politics.

With these candidates' professional, middle-class background, analysts say Beijing might have hoped they could play a strategic role by diluting the support of the pan-democratic candidates. However, results in Kowloon West and New Territories East proved that support for pro-democracy candidates remains solid.

Instead, the crushing defeats of the Tien brothers and Mrs Chow have been attributed, at least in part, to the lack of support from the liaison office.

The conspiracy theory has bred more rumours. One line of thinking is that the central government was keen to teach the Liberals a lesson over Mr Tien's about-turn on the national security bill in 2003.

While it looks certain that Beijing still has qualms about Mr Tien's U-turn that deepened the political crisis faced by the Tung administration, it also seems inconceivable that it would like to see the Liberals wither.

A more plausible explanation is that Beijing simply could not afford to help the Liberals at the risk of diluting the support for its core candidates. They include the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the Federation of Trade Unions, the Heung Yee Kuk and 'independents' such as Professor Leung.

Conspiracy theories aside, it seems certain that the so-called 'co-ordination of votes' among the pro-Beijing camp intensified in this election. And indications are that the liaison office played an important role behind the scenes.

Beijing's game plan is not difficult to figure out. Given that the electoral arrangements for 2012 will be put to a vote during the next Legco session, Beijing would have preferred to see the pan-democratic camp lose its veto power. That would have happened only if it got less than 21 seats. It did not. Now that universal suffrage for all legislators could happen in 2020, Beijing would also hope to see the fleet of 'love China, love Hong Kong' legislators getting a bigger vote share in direct polls.

The results and post-election controversies show the central government's alleged meddling is, arguably, counterproductive. While creating more feuds and disputes within the ranks, it also casts a shadow over fair elections, and the city's autonomy.

With a timetable fixed for universal suffrage and mainland-Hong Kong relations moving towards normalcy, it is time for Beijing to start distancing itself from the city's electoral politics, not doing the opposite.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.