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No surprise as Beijing loyalist takes Hong Kong's top job

Carrie Lam to become city's first female leader amid protests

Carrie Lam (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

HONG KONG -- A circle of Hong Kong notables have picked pro-Beijing loyalist Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to be the first female to take the territory's top job on Sunday, despite protests and public criticism about mainland intervention in the election.

Hong Kong's 7 million residents had little say in the vote. Instead, a 1,194-member election committee, comprised mostly of Beijing-friendly elites and businessmen, handpicked Lam, the former government chief secretary, to be chief executive for the next five years.

Lam, 59, who received 777 of 1,163 votes cast, was widely regarded as Beijing's favored candidate ahead of the election. Opinion polls show that many members of the public distrust Lam due to her hardline approach and her controversial role in a project to build a Hong Kong branch of Beijing's Palace Museum. Some opponents have made a complaint to the city's anti-corruption agency over her involvement.

In a recent poll by Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lam registered 30% public support , a rate trailing even unpopular incumbent Leung Chun-ying, who decided in December not to seek a second term.

This is the fifth leadership election since Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997. The previous two saw pro-democracy politicians, such as Albert Ho Chun-yan, vying for the top post. This election was dominated by contenders from the establishment and pro-Beijing camp.

Still, heavy security on election day raised eyebrows. Some 2,000 police officers, a force outnumbering the day's eligible voters, were stationed around the polling site in the commercial district of Wan Chai in case of unrest.

Lam's main rival, John Tsang Chun-wah, 65, received 365 votes on Sunday. The ex-financial chief garnered most of his support from the pro-democracy camp, which had a quarter of the votes. Another contender, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, took 21 votes.

Formerly a rank lower than Lam in the government, Tsang has consistently led popularity ratings for his sense of humor and easygoing personality. Dubbed "Uncle Pringles" for his signature mustache that mirrors a potato chip brand mascot , he was nonetheless criticized for his conservative fiscal policy that resulted in the repeated underestimate of government budget surpluses.

Sunday's election was met with protesters, some of whom jeered as the results were announced. "We want full universal suffrage now," chanted a group of radical democrats, including "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, who cast a blank vote. Outside the polling station, a crowd of protestors clashed with the police as they expressed their anger at the unrepresentative system. This was a contrast with some pro-Beijing protesters, who waved national flags of China to support Lam.

By contrast, many diners at a dim sum restaurant in North Point, a stronghold of pro-Beijing groups, cheered as the televised vote count showed Lam's count passing the 601 mark to give her a first-ballot majority.

A former British colony, Hong Kong has been guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedom until 2047 under an agreement between Beijing and London. But Beijing leaders have been reluctant to grant full universal suffrage for the leadership race, despite the 79-day "Umbrella Movement" protests that paralyzed parts of the territory in 2014 to press for a more democratic voting process.

Despite growing political tension in Hong Kong, Lam is set to prioritize uncontentious economic policies over political reforms. She has pledged to increase education spending and build more affordable flats for new home buyers. She has also promised to introduce tax cuts to support small companies and encourage research and development.

Nonetheless, analysts remain skeptical that Lam will be able to heal political and social divides in the city.
"[Lam] will inherit an economy facing both cyclical and structural headwinds and a political environment where tensions are high," said Chang Liu, a China economist at research company Capital Economics, ahead of the election.

"She will be remembered as a kind of candidate elected with very low public popularity," said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of politics at Chinese University, at the polling station. "It only reflects the ability of Beijing to control [election committee] members."

Ma said it was neither public support nor popularity that determined Sunday's results. "Beijing's trust is the most, if not the only, important criterion," he said.

Political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu said he was hesitant to call Lam "Leung Chun-ying 2.0" as all decisions are ultimately dependent on the politics in Beijing, which is now dominated by President Xi Jinping.

Lau emphasized that Beijing's grand scheme for Hong Kong, which is to maintain stability, has not changed. "Beijing will grasp Hong Kong as tight as possible but of course [Lam] has to consider the resistance of Hong Kongers. Whether or not the two forces can be balanced, I doubt it," he said.

Nikkei staff writer Joyce Ho in Hong Kong contributed to this story.

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