Hong Kong’s chief executive candidates have no choice but to bow to interest groups

Gary Cheung says the very nature of the race and an Election Committee stacked with Beijing loyalists and interest groups are why policy platforms of candidates appear so irrelevant

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 12:18pm

In November 2011, Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang Ying-yen declared their candidacy for chief executive. In the next two months, the pair rolled out their manifestos on policy areas, setting the stage for vigorous debates in the run-up to the March 2012 election.

This time, with only seven weeks to go before the Election Committee picks the city’s next leader, there is a lack of serious debate on candidates’ platforms. On December 14, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing became the first contender to announce his election platform. Rival aspirant and former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee rolled out her manifesto the following day. But neither drew much media attention as their chances of winning are slim.

Watch: Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing throws his hat in the ring

Former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had yet to complete her platform when she hosted a star-studded election rally last Friday, while ex-finance chief John Tsang Chun-wah called on the public to share their thoughts on his Facebook page and only unveiled his platform this week.

Policy platforms do not make much difference in the small-circle election decided by the 1,194 members of the Election Committee

The apparent irrelevance of platforms is inconceivable in what is one of the tightest races for the top job since the handover. But this is attributable to the inconvenient truth that they do not make much difference in the small-circle election decided by the 1,194 members of the Election Committee. In the past few weeks, dozens of Beijing-friendly politicians and groups lined up to back Lam, citing her track record, even before she declared her manifesto, amid pro-Beijing newspapers’ extensive coverage of her candidacy and electioneering.

Meanwhile, some pan-democrats on the Election Committee favour Tsang because of his pledge to unite society. Underdog Woo had a point when he queried why some electors had decided to support candidates who have yet to unveil their manifesto.

The very nature of the chief executive race – decided by a panel stacked with Beijing loyalists and interest groups – forces candidates to bow to pressure from sectional interests. Last month, Lam and Ip met Election Committee members from the agriculture and fisheries subsector, which has 60 seats, though the industry only accounts for 0.1 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product, double the seats of any professional subsector, such as accountancy or education.

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Yet both Lam and Ip later sidestepped questions on whether they would seek to reduce the number of seats reserved for the subsector in future chief executive elections, an idea backed by forces across the political spectrum and mulled by senior government officials in the consultation on electoral reform from 2014 to 2015. Lam only said it still played an important role as “demand for quality farming, fishery products and beautiful flowers is strong”. Don’t be surprised if the Federation of Trade Unions backs Lam even if she is unlikely to introduce standard working hours, a key demand of the pro-Beijing flagship.

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The “innovative” ideas put forward by three candidates during their meetings last week with the Heung Yee Kuk, which holds 26 seats, underscored how they have no choice but to cater to sectional interests if they want their support.

Heung Yee Kuk backs away from bloc vote for Carrie Lam in Hong Kong leadership race

Tsang suggested a “mixed development mode” of small-house construction with subsidised Home Ownership Scheme (HOS) flats for efficient use of village land, where, say, a plot could house a six-storey block – with three floors used by a villager family and the rest to be sold to non-villagers as subsidised housing. The small-house policy favouring male villagers is seen as a privilege that should be rescinded to ease the land shortage. Tsang’s proposal sparked queries whether it would affect the interests of those applying for HOS flats.

Seven policy proposals for Hong Kong’s next chief executive

Ip proposed allowing villagers to build multi-storied small houses, a rehash of Henry Tang’s suggestion in 2012. We will see more “innovative” ideas before March 26, the day when our next chief leader is to be “selected”.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor