Hope, unity, trust. Those were the words John Tsang Chun-wah pushed in his campaign to become Hong Kong’s next chief executive, and judging by the reception his last-gasp tour of Hong Kong island received on Friday, they certainly inspired the public. But whether those words were enough to inspire the voters – namely, the 1,194-member Election Committee – appears far less likely.

Tsang has long commanded opinion poll leads over his rival, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, and that popularity was reflected in the rally that came less than 48 hours before the election and saw him swamped by thousands of supporters in Central.

Opinion polls have in the past been good omens for chief executive hopefuls – the past two winners, Leung Chun-ying and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, also commanded strong leads ahead of their election. But, on this occasion at least, Beijing appears not to have been swayed.

Communist Party loyalists, who dominate the Election Committee, are thought to favour his rival and even some Tsang supporters say his chances are slim.

The outlook was not always so pessimistic. Two Beijing-loyalists told This Week In Asia they would have voted for him had his rival been the incumbent Leung Chun-ying. When Leung chose not to stand, Lam’s emergence dealt a fatal blow to Tsang’s prospects.

That’s a bitter pill for Tsang’s supporters, some of whom say Lam’s leadership will deepen the polarisation of Hong Kong that took place under Leung, not only between Hongkongers and Beijing, but also between the public and government.

Tsang vowed to make mending that social divide a priority. “Hong Kong’s development has been hampered by worsening polarisation in recent years,” he said when he declared his candidacy. “What is most important right now is the rebuilding of trust, uniting society and bringing back hope.”

“I have faith in John Tsang’s ability to turn things around, especially after the shamelessly selfish style of governance of CY Leung,” said Joanna Pang, 43, who shook hands with the underdog candidate as he toured South Horizons.

Such was his appeal that pan-democrats on the Election Committee – normally steadfastly opposed to any pro-establishment figure such as Tsang – vowed to give him 98 per cent of the 326 votes in the committee.

Given the opacity of China’s political system, it may never be known why Beijing swung so heavily against Tsang and in favour of a candidate negatively depicted as “CY 2.0”. A Beijing-loyalist, however, provided some clue by way of a newspaper article two days before the election. Lo Man-tuen, a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, accused Tsang of failing to show loyalty to the central authorities when he insisted on campaigning without Beijing’s blessing. Tsang’s message of ”hope and trust” may have played well with the people – but it appears to have been lost on Beijing.

- Stuart Lau