On Sunday, 26 March, Hong Kong will elect its fifth chief executive since the 1997 handover to China. The new governor faces a daunting task to restore the public and investors’ faith in the city’s rule of law following a year that has seen a high-profile rendition of a Chinese-Canadian businessman
A 1,194-strong election committee will select a winner from three candidates: two former government ministers and a retired judge, in the first election since efforts to introduce universal suffrage failed two years ago. Beijing’s preferred choice, former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, is lagging behind in most opinion polls and facing widespread criticism on social media for her unequivocal allegiance to the mainland. Meanwhile, her former colleague John Tsang Chun-wah, Hong Kong’s former finance minister - affectionately known as ‘Mr Pringles’ for his resemblance to the potato chip logo - continues to woo the middle class who have no right to vote.
This situation is not new: in the 2012 election, front-runner Henry Tang Ying-yen was favoured by Beijing. However, Tang’s reputation was damaged by an extramarital affair and the unauthorised construction of an extension to his house - a serious matter in Hong Kong, where people have a quarter of the living space of the average US household - allowing building surveyor-turned-politician CY Leung, who was more popular among the Hong Kong people, to turn the race around and win by a small margin of the election committee.
A divided society and implications for rule of law
Unlike the 2012 election, this year has not seen any major corruption charges against any of the candidates; yet the growing division and distrust in society, caused, in part, by mainland Chinese influence in Hong Kong affairs, poses perhaps a bigger challenge for the new Hong Kong leader.
Just last month, for example, seven policemen were sentenced to two years in prison for attacking a protester during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. Pro-government groups strongly opposed the sentence: a police rally to support the seven policemen attracted 30,000 people, and donations made to the families of the convicted men surged to HKD 20 million (GBP 2 million) in less than a month, with donors including businessmen with triad backgrounds as well as at least 50 members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body comprised of Communist Party loyalists. Some critics of the ruling said that foreign-born judges - a British judge who has practised in Hong Kong since 1994 presided over the police officers’ case - should be banned from the territory. Other Hong Kongers, however, saw these views as a threat to the city’s long tradition of judicial independence.
Meanwhile, in November 2016 two newly elected young lawmakers were disqualified from the Legislative Council (‘LegCo’) by the High Court after staging a protest against Beijing during their oath-taking ceremonies. The attempt to unseat them came from the current chief executive and his justice minister, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung. They were aided by the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, which intervened to prevent the lawmakers from re-taking their oaths. While many people in Hong Kong welcomed the ruling, in part because of the offensive remarks the lawmakers made about China, for others, the move to punish political statements at LegCo - something that had previously been considered acceptable and even normal - was unexpected and raised fears that the government may start to use the court system to suppress opponents, especially those who advocate Hong Kong independence. Some see the recent unexpectedly long prison sentences handed out to three young protesters last week for attacking police in a violent protest in Mong Kok in early 2016 as evidence of this.
Adding to the anxiety that Hong Kong’s rule of law may be declining is the disappearance on the day before Chinese New Year of Chinese-Canadian businessman Xiao Jianhua, who is widely believed to have been smuggled across the border to the mainland. If he was indeed coerced into leaving the city by mainland law enforcement officers, or those acting on their behalf, it would be another violation of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model that underpins relations between Hong Kong and China, and will further erode people’s and investors’ faith in the government and rule of law.
Whoever is elected on Sunday will have to take efforts to stop the polarisation of Hong Kong society, prove that he/she can safeguard the city’s independent rule of law, and shore up its reputation as an open and transparent base for international businesses.
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Image: First Chief Executive election debate/WikiCommons/Creative Commons