James Tien: Hong Kong’s leadership contest has become less democratic and competitive

But another member of the Election Committee argues that this year’s race is ‘genuinely competitive’ as voters will pick winner in secret ballot

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 6:24pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 11:24pm

Hong Kong may be running its chief executive election with more electors and a wider mandate than 20 years ago, but one voter who has picked the city leaders since 1996 said the poll has become less democratic and competitive with Beijing making its stance “earlier, stronger and clearer”.

James Tien Pei-chun, a staunch supporter of popular underdog John Tsang Chun-wah, also said the city’s leadership election may be described as “having experienced little change” as the central government has always had an influence on the result.

However, Ann Chiang Lai-wan, also an elector for the city’s leader since 1996, countered that this year’s chief executive race is still “genuinely competitive” as voters will pick the winner in a secret ballot.

“Beijing officials have been asking for electors’ views more [frequently] than expressing their own views,” Chiang told the Post.

On Sunday, the Election Committee’s 1,194 members will decide which of the three candidates – former financial secretary Tsang; retired judge Woo Kwok-hing; or Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate – will govern Hong Kong in the next five years.

It will be Hong Kong’s sixth chief executive election since 1996, after uncontested polls in 2002 and 2005 and contested races in 2007 and 2012.

In December 1996, seven months before the handover, Tung Chee-hwa became the city’s first post-colonial leader after winning majority support from the 400-member Selection Committee.

Tung and his successor Donald Tsang Yam-kuen were returned uncontested in 2002 and 2005 respectively, after being nominated by the majority of the 800 members of the Election Committee.

Tsang was re-elected in 2007, while Leung Chun-ying was elected by the committee, which was enlarged to 1,200 members, five years ago.

Committee members have been re-elected before every race, except in 2005 and 50 members – including Tien and Chiang – have been returned every time since 1996. Recalling the past five elections, Tien believes the race in 1996 was the most competitive so far.

“There were four candidates: Tung, Yang Ti-liang, Peter Woo Kwong-ching and Simon Li Fook-sean, but Li only dropped out of the race because he did not have enough nominations ... not because of Beijing,” Tien said.

The Liberal Party honorary chairman was referring to arguments that while Li’s age and late entrance into the race were to blame for him dropping out, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee failed to secure sufficient nominations and dropped out earlier this month because Lam is seen as Beijing’s preferred choice.

In a stark contrast to the Beijing-appointed committee in 1996, the pan-democratic camp has won more than a quarter of the 1,194 seats that will elect the city’s leader this time.

Instead of supporting candidates from their own camp, as in 2007 and 2012, this time pan-democrat electors have opted to endorse John Tsang, a pro-establishment candidate who has a real chance of winning, Tien said.

“Because of the pan-democrats’ active participation ... Beijing has been more concerned and its participation has come earlier, stronger and clearer,” he said.

“In 1996, I only knew that Tung was Beijing’s preferred candidate from [then Liberal Party chairman] Allen Lee Peng-fei a few weeks ahead ... but this time, Lam was endorsed by Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong months ago.”

Sources told the Post that in closed-door meetings in Shenzhen last month, National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang, the state leader who oversees Hong Kong affairs, had informed some local politicians that Lam was the preferred candidate of the central government.

Apart from the politics, Tien said the technical arrangements of the chief executive election have experienced much change.

Compared with the two-week nomination period introduced in 2002, the 400 electors cast their nominating votes for the first chief executive race during an hour-long meeting in November 1996. They held a secret ballot at another meeting a month later.

Election Committee member Tai Hay-lap, who was an electorin 1996, told the Post that there was so little privacy during the nominating meeting in November then that some members, including himself, asked officials to create cubicles to make sure their ballots in December remained secret.

“We sat so close together in November that you could see who your neighbour nominated ... The recommendation was accepted and electors could tick their ballot paper in the cubicles,” Tai said.