Another leadership election in Hong Kong, another bureaucrat in charge – and five more years of the same

Alice Wu says a week before a no-surprise vote on the city’s next chief executive, we should dial down our expectations of change. Beijing’s choice of our next leader will set us on a very predictable course

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 5:37pm

We don’t need a crystal ball to see what will happen next Sunday: a bureaucrat will be elected Hong Kong’s next chief executive. The mirror on the wall is Beijing, and the fairest of them all has been pre-determined, pre-ordained, and pre-“hugged”, just so there is no ambiguity. There’s no need for spoiler alerts.

Beijing did its favoured candidate no favours by campaigning and canvassing for her. The usual suspects have fallen in line and made the requisite over-the-top proclamations of support. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor did not have a choice in the matter so let’s not hold her responsible for this. She probably feels offended, too – to be given such strong, unsolicited support suggests a lack of confidence in her to win the election on her own merit.

Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and sons talked into voting for Carrie Lam as leader

It would be nice if Beijing’s support counted as a statement for the cause of women’s advancement. But its endorsement is disabling Lam, rather than empowering her. Beijing is playing it safe, for its own sake.

But Lam should not despair; the lack of confidence may not be personal. As some see it, Beijing gave up trying to be subtle about what it wants after the July 1 march in 2003 that eventually took down Hong Kong’s first chief executive. Beijing is not going to take any chances – it has no wish to be accommodating, and expects the same of the city’s leader. The likes of Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and John Tsang Chun-wah are just too politically risky for Beijing. Lam, by contrast, played her cards right.

We should be prepared for the bureaucrat to give us a bureaucrat’s explanation for everything that will occur in the next five years

The former chief secretary might as well take a chill pill over playing a poor second in the popularity stakes to her former colleague in the cabinet. John Tsang clearly has the advantage of not being the “anointed one”.

Our chief executive must win the support of the biggest voting bloc in this race – the pro-establishment camp – since, under the Basic Law, he or she may not be affiliated with any party. No party has the ultimate say in this system; the only kingmaker allowed is Beijing, on which any aspiring leader must depend. Career civil servants do make better administrators. Consider the fates of past chief executives and it should be clear that the office-holders are politically expendable to Beijing.

So it’s time for us to manage our own expectations. We know we will be getting a professional bureaucrat at the helm. Hence, we should be prepared for the bureaucrat to give us a bureaucrat’s explanation for everything that will occur in the next five years. If this round of election debates is any guide, we know we will be given the round-about on each and every problem. There is going to be a lot of buck-passing. We may see ministers taking the fall. But if all else fails, we will see a repeat of the official performance in the tainted water controversy: it’s everyone’s fault so it’s no one’s fault.

Watch: Carrie Lam says she will resign if mainstream views are against her

Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by Lam’s pledge at the debate to resign if she finds mainstream views to be against her. Though probably an off-the-cuff remark, it took guts and spoke of her self-confidence. It was also the closest attempt by her to engage the people outside the Election Committee, to speak to the majority of us in the peanut gallery. Unfortunately, she downplayed it afterwards.

Lam may yet surprise us all, including Beijing, after getting officially appointed. Who knows, right?

Lam should know that she is going to be the only one looking out for her own interests, so she may turn on the charm offensive after her seat is secured. But, until then, the rest of us should accept that we’ve been set on a very predictable course.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA