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Lu Ping:

Beijing’s 'Safest' Candidate Least Trusted in Hong Kong

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Beijing’s 'Safest' Candidate Least Trusted in Hong Kong

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Taiwanese writer Lu Ping, who served for seven years as director of the Kwang Hwa Information and Culture Center, Taiwan's cultural window in Hong Kong, comments on the former British colony’s first female chief executive.

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Beijing’s 'Safest' Candidate Least Trusted in Hong Kong

By Lu Ping
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 619 )

During the election campaign of Hong Kong’s new chief executive, one would often hear the word “divide”, as Hong Kong society is truly a split society now. Carrie Lam is the new chief executive. After she takes office, the most important point of observation will be whether the divide in Hong Kong society will become even more pronounced.

I will first point out the root of the problem, which stems from the utter lack of trust between Beijing and Hong Kong from the very beginning, right after the handover.

Hong Kong and China are very different in terms of system, society and judiciary, and have very different views and expectations about the territory’s democratic  progress and civil society. Let alone, in the eyes of Beijing, Hong Kong always harbored “leftover evil supporters” of the British government. But for the people of Hong Kong, it felt more like they benefitted from the “leftover glory” of the British colonial period, be it with regard to the rule of law or basic infrastructure. Just by looking at the emotions and historical interpretations regarding the colonial period, you can see the difference between Hong Kong and Beijing.

Behind the Red Qipao

I will always remember (back when I participated in the “Hao Ran Camp” activities in Hong Kong) then-Chief Secretary Anson Chan at the handover ceremony in 1997. Anson Chan wore a bright red qipao. Why? Because she was actually “laying her heart bare.” And it was not only Chan. During this not-so-short period around the time of the handover, the wives of high-ranking officials and rich businessmen often dressed in red from head to toe at social events; they would risk showing up dressed in the same style and color because they wanted to be sure to wear red all over. Why did they do this so deliberately? Behind all this was a lack of confidence. Had the people of Hong Kong felt very confident about all this, that being Chinese was “only natural”, they would not have needed to take such great pains to demonstrate such an attitude.

This latent estrangement was always there; even when Chinese leaders spoke to the people in Hong Kong, they would often get the feeling that they were out of rhythm. Generally speaking, the leaders were used to speaking to people in China, and the audiences there would always start to applaud at a certain point. But this clearly did not work with people in Hong Kong, first because Mandarin and Cantonese differ, and second because people in Hong Kong were not used to the culture of Chinese-style officialdom. This failure is a metaphor that foreshadowed the subsequent confrontation between Hong Kong and Beijing.

The Chief Executive’s Awkward Fate

In hindsight, each chief executive relived the same cycle, meeting an embarrassing fate. Because encounters with Beijing were unnatural, they would feel unconfident. Therefore, they were eager to show sincerity toward Beijing, to show that they were “Beijing’s man”. However, the more they demonstrated their allegiance, the more people in Hong Kong lost trust in them. Subsequently, feeling that their democratic basis was slipping, they would feel even more that they needed the strong support of Beijing, going out of their way to curry favor with Beijing. This kind of scenario manifested itself clearly in outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

The election of Carrie Lam is probably reason for more pessimism. Lam was appointed by Beijing, and her public approval rate is extremely low.

The chief executive election is already a “small-circle election” (see Box). If Beijing had taken a hands-off approach, the three chief executive candidates would have had an opportunity to campaign fairly.

(Former Financial Secretary) John Tsang and Lam have both served as Hong Kong government officials. But because Tsang is more soft-spoken and has stronger PR skills than Lam, he is more popular with Hong Kong citizens. Candidates who enjoy public support or who are popular with the electorate are destined to make the central government in Beijing nervous for fear they will take advantage of public opinion to bolster their position.

Lam has a somewhat rigid personality, which is why Beijing will not easily question her loyalty. But because she lacks public support, she is forced to cuddle up to Beijing, which makes Beijing more willing to anoint her. Because she has been hand-picked, she must accommodate Beijing’s stance in all respects and make statements that are not music to the ears of Hong Kong citizens. It seems this has already become an inevitable cycle.

Numerous differences originally existed between Hong Kong and China on various fronts. On top of that, people-to-people exchanges created conflict. If this confrontational situation continues, the two sides could crash like two trains in a head-on collision. And from this last chief executive election, I cannot see any sign that the risk of such a collision has been reduced.

From an objective perspective, as a large power, Beijing should rule benevolently; it should let go of control and be more lenient. However, first of all, Beijing is used to an authoritarian one-party system and not used to divesting power. Secondly, as far as the Beijing leadership is concerned, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Hong Kong could serve as a model for Taiwan. When these two factors are combined, Beijing might lose patience given the potential loss of control in Hong Kong and show an increasing lack of the necessary circumspection regarding the means that it adopts to deal with the situation.

Losing 'Final Say'

As a result, small issues that shouldn’t have become the focus in the first place stoke public anger and become the focus of the problem. For instance, the right to grant “one-way permits”, under which Chinese can immigrate to Hong Kong, lies entirely with China. The people of Hong Kong feel that they have been deprived of their right to have “final say” (Editor’s note: the right to speak and be heard). Over the past 20 years, the space for exercising such a right to speak and be heard has been increasingly diminished. The subjectivity of the people is vanishing right before our eyes. That’s the reason why the non-political society of Hong Kong has become so politicized.

If we say If a growing number of people in Hong Kong approve of separatism; we could say that this is actually an intuitive reaction; the more you deprive people of an opportunity to make themselves heard, the more they feel compelled to make noise so that the outside world hears them.

Hong Kong independence was originally a non-existent topic. To be honest, the conditions for independence virtually do not exist in Hong Kong. But since Hong Kong society is now highly politicized, an illusory issue has turned into the control group for the real environment. People can use it to express their discontent with reality, an option to say no.

The accumulated anxiety in society has created numerous divisions and confrontations, including the confrontation between the younger and the older generations. After the umbrella movement, the young people became even more progressive. The traditional Hong Kong family used to be stable, apolitical, and happy as long as it made money. But young people think that if everyone continues to be hypocritical and there is no opportunity to state political demands, Hong Kong will have no future.

Due to the generational confrontation, the political divide between the pro-China and the pro-democracy camps, as well as the contradictions within the democracy movement, Hong Kong society is more likely than ever to boil over with anger over small issues, disturbing and unsettling the entire society.

If you had asked me back in 1997 what future might bring, I could not have imagined that the situation would change so rapidly; I could not have imagined that relations between Hong Kong and China would deteriorate so much, because in comparison to any other place, Hong Kong is very easy to rule. The people of Hong Kong respect the law, they are efficient, things are running on track. These are the special characteristics of Hong Kong society handed down from the British colonial period. The Hong Kong that Beijing recovered in 1997 wasn’t a bad card.

However, over the past two decades Beijing actually failed big time. Because Beijing wasn’t familiar with, didn't trust, didn’t respect and didn’t embrace the social norms of the Pearl of the Orient, this has created a situation that seems difficult to turn around today. This is truly regrettable.

After all, ruling Hong Kong and ruling China are not the same thing. China covers a vast area so that “maintaining stability” is made the necessary top priority. But Hong Kong is different; Hong Kong is a highly ordered, modernized place able to autonomously run itself. If Hong Kong were granted a bit more autonomy, including universal suffrage, this experience would help the gradual democratization of all of China.

What is a great pity is that, 20 years ago Beijing, I firmly believe, really wanted to do a good job in Hong Kong and show it off before the whole world. It is a pity that on the execution side, the officials dispatched from Beijing are unfamiliar with and distrustful of Hong Kong, and as a result are afraid of making a mistake. In the face of Beijing’s rigid system, those on the bottom rungs in particular are always trying to figure out what the higher-ups want, and tend to side with Beijing.

Every single chief executive election has clearly shown that the more deliberately Beijing picks a seemingly safe and obedient person, the more certain it is that he/she will not be able to win the hearts of the people of Hong Kong.

  Having insisted on helping a candidate whose public support and approachability is questionable to win the chief executive post, Beijing will probably have a hard time. Lam’s election victory is not an outcome that deserves to be celebrated, nor does it serve Hong Kong’s long-term interests. (Interview and compilation by Yi-shan Chen)

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz


Hong Kong’s "small-circle” chief executive elections

As many as 3.3 million of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million residents are registered voters. However, Hong Kong’s Basic Law stipulates that only 270,000 Hong Kong citizens are entitled to elect the 1,200-member election committee. Its members come from 38 subsectors, including the professions, trade and commerce, industry, religious and social organizations as well as ex officio members (the current committee has 1,194 members). The chief executive is elected by the Election Committee, but the central government in Beijing has the right to officially appoint the winner of the election. Chief executive hopefuls must be at least 40 years of age and win at least 150 votes in a first round to be nominated as candidates. The chief executive election is therefore popularly known as “small-circle” election.

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