The upside to mud-slinging
Hong Kong television viewers were not the only ones stunned by Henry Tang Ying-yen's explosive allegations during last Friday's chief executive debate.
Beijing and its Hong Kong liaison office were also shocked when Tang accused rival Leung Chun-ying of suggesting the use of riot police and tear gas against those protesting against a proposed national security law. Tang also accused Leung of wanting to cut short the licence renewal term for Commercial Radio as a 'punishment' for its critical stance on government policies.
But it was not so much the revelations that alarmed Beijing and the liaison office. It was that Tang had revealed confidential discussions within the Executive Council. According to the Basic Law, the council is 'an organ for assisting the Chief Executive in policy-making' and the confidentiality rule, inherited from the British colonial period, has long been regarded as sacrosanct. Tang claimed he breached it because 'public interest has overridden confidentiality'.
So all eyes were on Tang last night to see if he had another bomb to drop on Leung during the TV debate organised by the Election Committee.
But it didn't happen. That might mean Tang has run out of ammunition, but he still stood firm on his accusations against Leung and even said he had brought the case to the Independent Commission Against Corruption for further investigation. In the coming few days, will the situation turn even more irremediable as the fight between the two rivals accelerates?
Whatever the effects of these bombshells have been, there has been a gradual drop in Leung's popularity from its highest, at over 50 per cent last month, to the current 40 per cent. Meanwhile, 27 per cent supported none of the three candidates, according to the latest Cable TV poll.
It is reasonable to think that Beijing is getting worried that the process is getting out of control, with the risk lingering of a possible second-round run-off on March 25.
As a Chinese saying has it, 'a long night harbours many dreams', meaning a delay can be dangerous. Any more unexpected controversies or infighting between Tang and Leung on the eve of the election could lead to more blank votes, and this is the last thing Beijing wants to see. However, since the official line remains that 'both Tang and Leung are acceptable CE candidates to the Central Government', Beijing did not directly criticise Tang.
But after Tang's two explosive charges, the former secretary of justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie did speak out forcefully.
'The CE election should be conducted in a fair, open and just manner,' she said. 'If the rule is not properly observed and protected, no one will be willing to join the government or say anything during internal meetings in future.' Leung added that 'running for the CE is not an excuse to breach this important rule.'
Elsie Leung's words have special weight, even though other former senior officials also raised similar points. First, she is neutral, having stated no preference for either candidate. Second, she is well known for her 'super status' as a Beijing loyalist, holding a very senior position as the deputy director of the Basic Law Committee under the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
She has played a key role during some very critical times in Hong Kong. The most recent was in 2010, when, at the very last minute, she convinced the top leadership in Beijing to accept a compromise constitutional reform proposal, avoiding a possible constitutional crisis.
Of course, one cannot jump to the conclusion that Elsie Leung was speaking for Beijing. But during the National People's Congress session earlier this month, Vice-President Xi Jinping , who is in charge of Hong Kong affairs, twice reminded Hong Kong delegates to be united. He called for them 'to put the national and Hong Kong's overall interests above that of your own'. His remarks were followed by Premier Wen Jiabao , who said Hong Kong 'should elect a CE who will be supported by the majority of Hong Kong people'. His remarks were widely interpreted as Beijing's opposition to blank votes being cast on March 25.
But some in Hong Kong interpreted Wen's remarks the other way round, meaning that even if blank votes lead to an aborted election on March 25 because no one gains a majority, a CE eventually will be elected on a subsequent May 6 election.
It is an open secret that the liaison office is trying hard to ensure the pro-establishment election members do cast their votes on March 25. But who can guarantee that under a secret ballot?
Everything has its upside and its down side. For Beijing, it is disappointing that the campaign has turned into a political 'killing field'. And it may be worse if a run-off cannot be avoided.
But, from a positive point of view, isn't uncertainty the beauty of an election? And don't the people of Hong Kong, and Beijing as well, gain a much clearer picture of the intertwined connections and wrestling among various interests groups in town?
However you view it, this seemingly out-of-control election certainly will lead Beijing to conduct an overall review of the situation and reshape its Hong Kong policies after the election.
The issue is, will Beijing tighten its control? Or will Beijing be more accommodative, considering that Hong Kong is likely to embrace universal suffrage in five years?