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Hong Kong poses a problem for Beijing
While politics on the Mainland have been complicated by the Chongqing saga, Beijing has another tricky problem to handle in Hong Kong. The former colony is moving towards the selection of a new Chief Executive next month to replace the incumbent, Donald Tsang, who served as Financial Secretary under the British but has recently been working to strengthen links with the Mainland. China’s preferred candidate is Henry Tang Ying-yen), who formerly held the second-ranking civil service post and is from a wealthy business family – his father, a textile tycoon from Shanghai, developed close relations with Jiang Zemin after being rehabilitated following the Cultural Revolution.
But the son has run into a major storm over a huge basement area build under his mansion without planning permission. Tang, who has put the blame for the infraction on his wife, saw his standing in weekend opinion polls plunge to 21 per cent from an already low 26 per cent at the start of the month. His main opponent, Leung Chun-ying, retained 49 per cent backing.
Popular feeling counts
An initial reaction may be that such public disfavour does not matter. The selection will be conducted by a 1,200-strong committee whose membership is approved by Beijing. The public has no say as Hong Kong’s path to democracy is proving to be a very long one indeed. A month ago, the assumption was that Tang had the appointment sewn up thanks to backing from the central government, the local civil service and the powerful local business community, all of which regard him as a friendly, reliable pair of hands in contrast to the more independent Leung. But the public mood does count, as shown when public disapproval helped to get rid of Tung Chee-hwa, the first post-handover Chief Executive (although his own policy fumbling also undermined Beijing’s confidence in him). And Beijing’s representative office has been guarded in its reaction to the basement scandal.
When he contacted the Mainland’s Liaison Office on Thursday, Tang was reportedly told to stay in the race but Guo Li, the Deputy Director of the office, told reporters the same day that “integrity is important to anyone.” There are other Beijing-friendly candidates, including Rita Fan, a veteran friend of the Mainland, and the head of the pro-Beijing political party, Tsang Yok-sing. But in a poll asking people whom they would favour if Tang withdrew, Fan got only 24 per cent support and Tsang just 6 per cent (16.5 per cent went for Joseph Yam, the former head of the Monetary Authority).
Beijing has to make a fine calculation between imposing Tang on an unwilling public and, if he withdraws, risking an unruly selection process that could threaten the stability it so prizes in the Special Administrative Region (SAR), which rejoined China in 1997. The decision is being delayed by the absence from the national capital of Xi Jinping, who has top-level responsibility for Hong Kong affairs; after his US trip last week, the Vice President is visiting Ireland.
The selection takes place against the background of a slowing economy, with growth down from 7.5 per cent in 2010 to 5 per cent last year and a forecast 3 per cent or lower this year due to falling exports and the slowdown on the Mainland. There is also rising tension between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders.
Although the 28 million annual visitors from the rest of China have boosted the SAR’s economy, they are blamed for sending up property prices and for behaving badly in public. One-third of the 88,564 births recorded in Hong Kong in 2010 were to women from the Mainland seeking to avoid the one-child policy there, and a full-page advertisement this month in the popular local newspaper Apple Daily demanded “Stop the invasion of mainland mothers” and included an image of a locust sitting on a hill overlooking the city. A poll in December, which was promptly denounced by propaganda officials in Beijing, showed that only 1 per cent of people in the SAR regarded themselves foremost as Chinese rather than Hong Kongers.
The composition of the Election Committee and Beijing’s watchful eye rule out the possibility of an election that would pit a PRC-friendly candidate against a member of the Democratic camp who would press for introduction of universal suffrage. But even if that is not going to happen, Beijing still has to grapple with the complexities of a small circle selection that has suddenly gone awry.