March 26, 2017 11:05 pm JST
Keith B. Richburg

Hong Kong's new chief executive starts on a tightrope

Carrie Lam must balance calls for more democracy with Beijing's interests

Carrie Lam speaks at a press conference after she won Hong Kong's chief executive election on March 26. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was elected on Sunday as Hong Kong's fourth chief executive and first female to hold the top position, now faces a series of virtually impossible tasks in her five-year term. Each requires a high-wire balancing act.

The former Hong Kong government chief secretary must try to mend the territory's deep political divisions, while laboring under the widespread perception that she was Beijing's handpicked candidate for the post. She must try to garner public support for her policies, after emerging the winner from an undemocratic process in which the closest candidate she beat was far more popular, according to opinion polls. Lam, 59, received 777 of 1,163 votes cast by an election committee regarded as friendly to Beijing. She must now try to assure Hong Kongers that she wants to introduce more democracy in the wake of fierce protests against Beijing's influence, while reassuring China's leaders who want no such thing.

And she must decide whether her primary role is to stand up for Hong Kong people's interests before those of the territory's Beijing overlords, or instead, impose Beijing's will on Hong Kong.

Lam was out-campaigned, outdebated and consistently out-polled by John Tsang, a former finance chief known as "Uncle Chips" for his mustache, which was likened to the mustachioed cartoon caricature from the Pringles potato-chip can. Tsang held large outdoor rallies, drew a big social media following, and had posters plastered over subway station walls showing him posing with happy smiling supporters. Tsang had all the trappings of a Western-style political campaign and became the preferred candidate of Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp.

But Lam had the only thing that mattered: the tacit backing of China's President Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese Communist Party's leadership.

More "equal" than others?

The 1,194-member "election committee" that chose Lam is comprised mainly of pro-China business tycoons and other elites, as well as all members of the local legislature. Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp controls about 325 seats, or a quarter of the body, and they voted as a block for Tsang. The result was a foregone conclusion.

Beijing's backing guaranteed that Lam would get the job. It also guarantees that she will start out distrusted and disliked by at least half the population.

That puts Lam in an almost impossible position to succeed. But it did not have to be this way.

The irony is that both Lam and Tsang are lifelong civil servants, cautious conservatives and members of the leadership team of the outgoing chief executive C.Y. Leung. Both could be said to enjoy the trust of China's leaders -- Lam as Leung's deputy, who stood by him during the 79-day "Occupy Central" protests of 2014, and Tsang who spent 10 years as the city's longest serving financial secretary.

If China's leaders wanted to build support among Hong Kongers, they could easily have taken a hands-off approach, and let the nominated candidates -- including a third contender, retired Judge Woo Kwok-hing -- fight it out amongst themselves. Tsang may have won, Hong Kong people would have felt there was a real contest, and Beijing could say that this former British colony now enjoyed something akin to real democracy, albeit with few real voters.

However, one thing China's leaders do not like is uncertainty. Control is everything to the CCP. And the outcome of this contest needed to be controlled.

While Tsang may have been acceptable to China's rulers, Lam was seen as even more so. Lam was more vocal and public in her opposition to the "Occupy" protests. Tsang, as finance chief, was quieter and less visible. Also, his very public campaigning for the top job, and his support from the pro-democracy camp, was likely to make Tsang a target of suspicion by Beijing's paranoid leaders.

With Hong Kong society now cleaved between pro-China forces and those calling for democracy and universal suffrage, Beijing was not in any mood to take a chance.

The early promise to Hong Kong was for "a high degree of autonomy" ultimately leading to democratic elections, along the principle of one person, one vote. Former President Jiang Zemin, speaking at the Handover ceremonies when Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, pledged that the territory "shall gradually develop a democratic system that suits Hong Kong's reality." Those promises were wrapped up in an untested formula known as "one country, two systems."

Those promises were meant to assuage nervous locals and an anxious world, as the authoritarian communist country was about to assume control of one of the world's most sophisticated, modern and open economies.

In reality, China never intended to cede any control over Hong Kong or allow real democratic elections, with outcomes it could not predetermine. The promises of eventual "universal suffrage" were always vague enough that they could be postponed or later re-interpreted. China made this abundantly clear in its 2014 "white paper," that stated that Beijing had "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong. The territory may enjoy "a high degree of autonomy," the white paper said, but it narrowly defined that as "the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership."

In the ensuing years, China has made clear that it will not allow Hong Kong to become a base for subversion or a safe haven for those it considers a threat. China has sent its security agents across the border to abduct booksellers and a young billionaire, all in contravention of the agreement that Hong Kong's police force would have jurisdiction in the city. China's National People's Congress has stepped in to issue interpretations of Hong Kong's Basic Law, or constitution, undermining the independence of local courts.

Many Hong Kongers see this as China's meddling in Hong Kong's affairs. China's leaders see this merely as exercising their sovereignty over a territory it controls. For Beijing, the idea of "one country" was always more important than "two systems."

Now it is Carrie Lam's turn, as the fourth chief executive, to try to strike the right balance between local aspirations and the unfortunate reality. She said she wants to heal Hong Kong's divisions. But she will start with no mandate and low popular support. Being seen as "Beijing's candidate" already makes her an object of mistrust among many, before she is even sworn in.

This is not a recipe for success. But it seems to be the scenario that Beijing prefers -- and that, under the current system, is what matters.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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