TOM PLATE WRITES – Does the central government of China and the Chinese Communist Party possess the political wisdom and emotional range to handle all the many difficult challenges that catch the world’s eye precisely because of the centrality of China’s key role?
Since the 1997 handover from Her Majesty’s Government to the PRC, the special administrative region of Hong Kong has been in the limelight. And on the whole its new life under Beijing’s absolute sovereignty has not gone badly: PLA troops are not befouling the bustling streets, as much of the western media once all but predicted; the economy sails along, and this dandy gem remains one of the world’s most iconic metropolises … stalker Shanghai notwithstanding!
An election is coming at the end of this month that could put this all at serious risk. Indications are that the winner and thus Hong Kong’s next leader – chief executive – will be Carrie Lam, former head of its civil service, mainly because the Xi Jinping government prefers her, and because Beijing pulls enough weight within the territory’s elite 1,200-member Election Committee to get what it wants. What evidently it doesn’t want is former Treasury Secretary John Tsang or – anyone capable of even semi-independent leadership. Like the former British colonial government, the Chinese like their Hong Kong leader tame and lame (And of course, the British – ironically, hypocritically- are complaining about what the Chinese are doing, which is running H.K. more or less the way they used to!)
Accordingly, this capable and likable civil servant is running strongest in the public-opinion polls (by as much as 14 percentage points by one estimate). But Tsang will not be the next chief. This anomaly arises due to Hong Kong’s ‘election’ method. It is not a basic one-person, one-vote deal. It’s ‘democracy’ of a filtered sort.
Roiling Hong Kong is not alone, by the way, in using a bizarre intermediary system that dilutes voters’ sentiment. Mathematically simple, one-person, one-vote systems are not everyone’s cup of tea. Even the United States selects its #1 via a patchwork-quilt of 538 electors collected from its 50 states. Sadly enough, this crazy system has the evil talent to select as the winner a candidate who failed to win a majority of the overall votes. In 2000, George W. Bush was second to Mr Al Gore by 543,895 votes. In 2016, Donald Trump was second to Mrs. Hillary Clinton by 2,868, 419 votes. Now the world, you see, will just have to learn to live with this ‘loser.’
Is the Hong Kong system for selecting its leader so categorically different? By month’s end, the 1,200-member, allegedly representative Election Committee is to produce, by majority decision, the next chief. Mathematically, that is close to one elector per 6000 people; by comparison, the U.S. has one elector for every 600,000 people. Choose the system you like better!
Ten years ago, in Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew was wondering about Mrs Hillary Clinton, who at that time looked a slam-dunk to become U.S president someday. How good was she? I shot a glance at the university colleague with me in Lee’s office in Istana, the government palace, and we agreed: She’s good enough. Lee mulled that over: “Good enough? Well, good … Because anyone you elect president, we in Asia have to live with.”
Similarly, anyone selected by Hong Kong as its next leader, the rest of us will have to live with. This means if the leader is popular and can govern well and keep relations with Beijing on a nice steady basis, we are all winners. Then, Hong Kong stays the shining jewel and avoids marinating into … a Taiwan in diapers. But if the next leader is problematic – whether incompetent or whatever – then it becomes an international problem of the first order; and we all losers, especially Sino-U.S. relations, as U.S. public opinion about China will very probably sour.
Let’s look at Beijing’s record in pulling the strings. The about-to-leave Leung Chun-ying, widely disliked, is publicly unimpressive but is almost a paradigm of the ideal for Beijing: an administrator who takes orders. His predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-Kuen, was a distinctly capable technocrat but due to the recent conviction for malfeasance in office finds himself plunked into a jail cell in Stanley Prison, praying his lawyers come up with a miracle. The first post-handover chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa was booted out by public pressure in 2005 but while he remains civically active and in Beijing carries on as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, he was also far more of an administrator than a leader.
It’s a near-certainty that none of Hong Kong’s first three chief executives will be crowned by history as great Chinese leaders, whether Zhu Rongji or Zhou Enlai or whomever.
Accordingly, Carrie Lam would seem to fit nicely into this unthreatening tradition of mediocrity — as John Tsang very well might not. Don’t-rock-the boat is the course Beijing wants. But probably what it will get instead is the opposite: endlessly turbulent political waters that will sink a hapless Lam, as they have Leung and Tung.
Since taking over in 2012, the Xi Jinping government has made a number of commendable decisions. This is not one of them. Is it too late to switch Beijing’s fateful finger of favoritism to Tsang? For in pushing the lady over the gentleman, Beijing is playing a losing game. You’d hate to see the central government in Beijing make a major blunder in its overall custody of Hong Kong. But such appears to be looming. Then again, it’s never too late until iWHY t’s really too late. Please think this one through again, Beijing.
This was originally published in the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, where the fortnighly op-ed column of Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate, its Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, has been appearing since June 2015. The founder of Asia Media International is the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ quartet, including ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’.