The race to become Hong Kong’s next chief executive: analysing the key candidates’ body language

Hopefuls in the race may be signalling their leadership styles – or losing votes – with the way they move and speak to us

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 December, 2016, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 December, 2016, 4:16pm

Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election race is already hotting up, with at least four hopefuls potentially set to compete for the top job. But how are those candidates’ body language and contrasting television presentation styles affecting our perception of their leadership qualities?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Woo Kwok-hing, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and John Tsang Chun-wah have emerged as the main possible successors to outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, following Leung’s announcement on December 9 that he would not run for re-election.

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The four have all separately given television interviews in which they have either announced they will be running for office or declared an interest in becoming the city’s next leader.

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As this year’s US presidential election demonstrated, political candidates’ contrasting presentation styles will affect people’s perceptions of them, and therefore their chances of success, analysts have said.

Dr Leow Chee Seng, professor of non-verbal communication and human behaviour at the IIC University of Technology, in Cambodia, said a politician’s body language is integral to whether voters consider him or her strong, trustworthy and inspiring.

He said many voters remained confused about how to interpret a politician’s body language, particularly as their words do not always complement their mannerisms when they speak on camera.

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“In fact, non-verbal communication gives us our first impressions and creates our perceptions of another person,” he said. “For politicians, body language is important because it helps a politician to show their dominant power, to influence people, to create positive images and perception to the stakeholders. Consistency and congruency between the non-verbal and verbal remain the most important domain for political candidates.”

According to Leow, key gestures include nodding to emphasise certain words; making large hand movements to show confidence; and smiling with open lips to display sincerity. Leaning forwards and giving consistent eye contact also tend to ensure a politician appears more dominant, he said.

Clement So York-kee, professor of communication at Chinese University, Hong Kong, said the prevalence of televised speeches in broadcast and online have accentuated the showmanship qualities of today’s politicians.

“Televised speeches are broadcast and rebroadcast on television and social media over and over again,” So said. “People are empowered to closely examine each candidate’s performance via videos.”

He said politicians nowadays are much more sophisticated in public relations.

“Politicians have learned how to avoid sounding too scripted or pausing too long, which could give the impression that they have something to hide,” he said. “But then they also have to feed the media some quotable quotes which the public can remember them by.”

He said that politicians have to juggle between different platforms in getting their message across. He said while politicians have to be very careful when they give televised speeches, they also have to appear spontaneous and casual on social media because that is what users expect.

He said the advent of new communication technology has exponentially accelerated how political information spreads.

“Things don’t just circulate. They go viral,” he said. “And it has an immediate effect on people’s evaluation of the candidates and their thoughts.”

He also pointed out that different chief executive candidates have different public personas. Ip appears to be very straightforward, while Woo tries to sound confident and Tsang is good at telling a story, and tries to be relatable.

Dr Leow Chee Seng on The main contenders for chief executive

John Tsang

Most candidates maintain a closed-lip smile when facing the media. This could be seen clearly in the former financial secretary when he resigned on December 12. Each statement he gave, he paused for a while before continuing to speak. His closed-lip smiles showed he did not want to disclose more than what he would like to say, as he declined to say whether he would enter the chief executive race.

Regina Ip

In an interview with RTHK’s The Pulse on December 16, the chairwoman of the New People’s Party was asked by journalist Steve Vines if her candidacy had the approval of the central authorities, to which she shook her head, despite saying that “no one had asked [her] not to run”. Her non-verbal cues therefore appeared inconsistent with her verbal ones. This could be dangerous because people might lose confidence in her over a statement made during the campaign. In the beginning, she was not comfortable about the topics that were discussed. As a result, she tried to reduce her hand and upper-body movement. However, when she was giving comment on the [election committee] subsector elections, she started to open up herself and you could observe that her hand movement increased.

Woo Kwok-hing

The retired judge announced he would run for the 2017 chief executive election in a press conference on October 26 this year. He visibly showed his anger when questioned about his stance on Article 23 [the part of the Basic Law which requires the passage of legislation against treason or subversion], which he said was needed to ensure a more harmonious Hong Kong. He became more assertive when commenting on this sensitive issue in his speech. But a good candidate remains emotionally stable. Perhaps having a poker face or maintaining a smile helps candidates to communicate better with their stakeholders.

Carrie Lam

In a press conference on December 2 about the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the chief secretary for the administration prepared her script but she maintained more eye contact with her audience, which was a contrast to the other candidates. This gesture showed she was highly confident about the subject she was presenting.

And when announcing on December 10 that she would “reconsider” running for chief executive, she smiled frequently and gave consistent eye contact, conveying a sense of sincerity.

Dr Leow Chee Seng on former chief Executive candidates

Leung Chun-ying

Speaking about the ‘one country, two systems’ framework in an address on December 7 this year, Leung applied the right frequency of head nodding during this speech. He nodded his head to emphasise words or terms he would like to focus on, such as “open minds”, “welcoming” and “double benefits”. But he read from a script and rarely made eye contact with his audience, suggesting he was a very careful person who did not want to make any errors in his statement. He tried to mask his face with a neutral facial expression. However, viewers could also observe a drooping of his upper eyelids, a loss of focus in his eyes and a slight drooping of the corners of his lips. All these facial expressions hinted at his inner feeling of resignation for his family, shortly before he announced on December 9 that he would not stand for re-election.

Henry Tang Ying-yen

The former chief secretary of Hong Kong showed a tight closed-lip smile before and after giving his resignation speech on September 28, 2011, in which he said he needed more time to consider whether he would run for the chief executive position, which he later did. This clearly showed he did not want to disclose more information, but at the same time suggested he was tense and pressured before giving the speech. He eventually lost the race to Leung.