Hong Kong is one of the planet's great cities, a global financial center populated by sophisticated, can-do citizens renowned worldwide for their dynamism. In one critical area, however, Hong Kong is hamstrung: as a part of China, the city does not own its politics. While Hong Kong is in many ways China's most open metropolis, its initiatives for greater democracy are controlled, and circumscribed, by Beijing. That, to many, hampers Hong Kong's quest to be an international Chinese territory.
Most glaring, Hong Kong's people are not allowed to directly elect their own chief executive (CE), the title given to the de facto mayor. Instead, voting is by a 1,200-member Election Committee composed largely of business elites who take their cue from Beijing. The selection of the winner, already vetted by Beijing, is practically preordained; the system effectively prevents a pro-democracy candidate from taking office.
On March 25, the Election Committee is scheduled to choose the next CE, whose term of office is five years. But this latest iteration is unraveling: the two main candidates acceptable to Beijing are both tainted by scandal, sparking strong public criticism of the pair, the vested interests backing them, the narrow method of selection critics call it a "small circle" ballot and of China's leadership for foisting it onto Hong Kong.
Of the two candidates, the skinny was that Beijing favored Henry Tang, 59, a former local cabinet member and the wealthy scion of a Shanghai-born industrialist, not least because Hong Kong's tycoons favored Tang, one of their own. But in recent months Tang has admitted adultery, apologized for having an illegally built basement beneath his luxury home and refused to comment on the rumor that he has an illegitimate child. "For most Hong Kong people, before the scandals erupted, I think it was kind of a done deal: Henry Tang was the favorite candidate, the one anointed by Beijing," says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Now Tang's candidacy is imploding.
His chief opponent is 57-year-old C.Y. Leung, a professional surveyor who has long had close ties with the mainland. Because Leung has cast himself as the change candidate, big business is wary of him. The public, however, is fonder of Leung than Tang, whose gilded background, many locals feel, prevents him from appreciating the socioeconomic needs of regular folk. Even though the CE is not directly elected, public opinion is a critical factor, as Beijing does not wish to be seen as supporting someone against the wishes of the people. That gives Leung an edge: "If he eventually does win, somewhat against the odds, it will be because of public opinion above all," says Richard Cullen, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong.
Yet Leung is in trouble too. The legislature is investigating him for conflict of interest in a government project, the press is on a tear about possible links to organized crime, and he has been accused of being a closet communist who would erode Hong Kong's freedoms all of which he has denied. The upshot is that the selection of either candidate could lead to public protests, making governing Hong Kong difficult a prospect that worries Beijing. "Nowhere in the world combines so much civic freedom with so much political restriction as Hong Kong," says Cullen. "Because you don't get to vote and make the choice, issues as they come up from time to time tend to be much more actively pursued."
Those issues are major. While Hong Kong is a prosperous, efficient business hub, tying for No. 1 with the U.S. in the 2011 World Competitiveness Rankings, the city also has the widest wealth gap among developed societies. Government figures from 2010 showed 1 in 5 living below the poverty line (defined as a four-person household living on less than $800 per month), with surging housing costs (fueled by wealthy Chinese mainlanders) the greatest financial burden. Other hot-button issues include pollution and more and better schools and hospitals, areas in which the government has shown little leadership even though it has plenty of money to throw at the problems. "What Beijing doesn't want is to see again half a million people in the street," Cabestan says, referring to a massive 2003 protest against Article 23, a proposed antisubversion law that critics feared would limit freedom-of-speech rights. The bill was shelved indefinitely.
Beijing has promised to allow a directly elected CE in 2017. But many fret that the establishment will devise a limited nomination procedure blocking pro-democracy candidates from entering the race. "In politics, raw power only takes you so far. You have to take the people with you to some degree. And that's the big dilemma [Beijing officials] face at the moment," Cullen says.
It's hard to sympathize with China's leaders after all they are the architects behind Hong Kong's restricted politics. And yet, handled right, Hong Kong could serve as a testing ground for China's own reforms. "People in mainland China are urging for political changes, so they look up to Taiwan and Hong Kong for 'live demonstrations,'" says Robert Chung, head of the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme. "Success in Hong Kong's democratization would also help mainland China to move forward."
Chung has organized a mock election for the public to vote two days before the CE-selection day. Voters will be able to cast their ballots through an Internet system as well as at voting stations in what he calls a "civil referendum." The result won't count as anything more than another opinion survey, but the exercise offers an outlet for Hong Kong's citizens to demonstrate support not just for a candidate (the third is a democracy activist) but also for direct elections. "One thing that's positive to come out of the current mess is the fact that this [current] system is rotten to the core," says pro-democracy legislator Emily Lau. "It stinks."