China’s might and Hong Kong’s autonomy: can Carrie Lam find a balance between the two?

Regina Ip says many of our problems come down to the Hong Kong government’s inability to balance ‘one country’ and ‘two systems’. Carrie Lam, if she wins the leadership race, should brace for an even more challenging task

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 March, 2017, 7:03pm

Just as it has been said that every financial crisis is different, so the dynamics of Hong Kong’s chief executive elections have varied greatly every five years they have been held.

The first two chief executives were elected in a relatively uneventful way. The race became dramatically more competitive in 2012 when then Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying led an insurgency within the pro-establishment camp against the front runner, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, and won. Once competition got out of the bag, in spite of the highly restrictive system of electing Hong Kong’s chief by a 1,200-strong committee, Beijing is finding it extremely hard to get the system back under control.

The 2017 election is further complicated by the fact that Hong Kong is facing unprecedented polarisation after the city went through a debilitating 79-day Occupy Central protest movement, followed by a highly acrimonious debate on constitutional reform that ended in a defeat of the government’s motion by an unexpectedly wide margin.

The deep divisions in our society – the young separatist challengers against the pro-China establishment, the cynics against the believers, the have-nots against the haves – were reflected in the outcomes of recent district and Legislative Council elections. Pro-establishment old-timers lost heavily in the district elections in 2015.

The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s pro-independence lawmakers

In the following year, several separatist-leaning young radicals got elected into the Legislative Council. In the election of members of the chief executive Election Committee last December, anti-establishment forces garnered a record number of 326 seats, far exceeding the 205 seats won by the pan-democrats in 2011.

Beijing is well advised to think hard about what sort of electoral system would best serve Hong Kong under ‘one country, two systems’

With their record number of votes, the pan-democrats have become a formidable force shaping the election. The match has thus become a contest between a candidate backed by the pan-democrats, and one favoured by Beijing.

To guard against the pan-democrats seizing control through throwing their weight behind a candidate more acceptable to the establishment, Beijing has made known its preferences through various channels from an early stage – no to John Tsang Chun-wah, the former financial secretary who is leading in the polls, but full support for former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has emerged as the most likely winner.

Barring any major blunder which would torpedo Beijing’s support for Lam, she is indeed most likely to win. But her election will not solve the many governance problems long bedevilling the government.

Continuing the same pattern as the mass elections in recent years, the chief executive election all but confirms the deep political fault line within our society. The pan-democrats are pursuing the same tactics as in the geographical elections – by fielding a candidate, this time in the shape of a former senior official who was part of the establishment, who wins public kudos by appearing to counter the tremendous might of China.

Knowing that even with their full backing, Tsang is unlikely to win, their tactics are to ensure that he gains the moral high ground as the most popular candidate. In the unlikely event that he wins, the pan-democrats would win big as kingmaker.

If Tsang loses, as he is likely to given the pro-establishment majority on the Election Committee, the pan-democrats would still win big by putting Beijing in an embarrassing position, and undermining Lam’s credibility even before she takes office. While Lam is poised to be elected with a comfortable majority on March 26, the same scenario is likely to be played out again five years from now, except that the pan-democrats would be in a stronger position to challenge the establishment with a vengeance.

With disgruntled young professionals outnumbering established ones, unless there is any dramatic improvement in governance, the pan-democrats’ strength is likely to grow. As in other parts of the world, Hong Kong is feeling the impact of disruptive technologies displacing established businesses. Coupled with a widening wealth gap, this trend is more likely than not to exacerbate discontent in the city.

Watch: Carrie Lam says constitutional reform may prove too divisive to undertake

Beijing is well advised to think hard about what sort of electoral system would best serve Hong Kong under “one country, two systems” that would best meet public expectations and enable the city to move forward. Judging from Lam’s policy platform, there is clearly a lack of will on her part to reactivate constitutional reform, and one has considerable sympathy to this position as the chasm often appears too wide to be bridged.

Hong Kong must protect its high degree of autonomy to ensure ‘one country, two systems’ remains effective

But at the heart of the constitutional debate is the extent of Hong Kong people’s autonomy within “one country, two systems”. The balance between the overwhelming might of the country and the high degree of autonomy of little Hong Kong is never easy to calibrate. In fact, many of the governance problems in Hong Kong in the past 20 years have stemmed from the local government’s inability to find the right balance.

That is the next chief’s greatest challenge, and one that Lam would not be able to avoid right from day one when she takes up her post – assuming she wins.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Party