It could be the highlight of Hong Kong’s election season: The three men who want to be the special administrative region’s next leader face off on March 16 in a two-hour debate that will be broadcast live, giving Hong Kong’s 7 million people a chance to hear from the men vying to become the next chief executive.
Almost nobody watching the showdown will be able to cast a vote, though. Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong has a freewheeling elected legislature, uncensored media, and frequent anti-government protests, but when it comes to the March 25 vote, the ex-British colony sticks to a playbook crafted by the Chinese leadership.
The right to choose the next chief executive belongs to an election committee of 1,200 people mostly made up of various business and political interests known as functional constituencies. The members of these groups select the committee’s electors. The insurance industry gets 18 slots. The finance and financial-services sectors get a combined 36 votes. Real estate and construction get 18 members. Lawyers get 30.
The system is supposed to ensure there are no surprises, since most committee members are known for their loyalty to Beijing. Officials from the central government can therefore stay in the background as electors like Li Ka-shing, the billionaire chairman of property developer Cheung Kong Holdings, go through the motions of choosing the regime’s preferred candidate. The setup works because Hong Kong’s corporate elite generally know what the leadership wants, says Christine Loh, a former lawmaker who is chief executive officer of Civic Exchange, a local think tank. “These guys have channels to get a sense of what the weather’s going to be like,” she says. “They have their own private observatories, so to speak.”
The forecast for this year’s election remains unclear. The two leading candidates are wealthy businessmen and former top Hong Kong officials—and both are dogged by scandal. Henry Tang, a favorite of Li and other developers, has struggled after blaming his wife for illegally constructing what the local papers describe as an elaborate entertainment center in the basement of his home. His more popular opponent, Leung Chun-ying, has been fighting conflict-of-interest accusations. The third candidate, Democratic Party Chairman Albert Ho, is scandal-free but has no chance of winning because his party’s positions are critical of Beijing.
With the two leading candidates damaged goods, the 1,200 people who get to vote haven’t gotten the usual signals about the Chinese government’s preordained winner. “This is the first election in which we don’t know the outcome,” says Michael DeGolyer, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who is a member of the election committee representing the education sector. The property barons, accustomed to taking direction from Beijing on matters related to local politics, are split, with Li and other top-tier developers supporting Tang while Leung attracts some executives from smaller companies who haven’t achieved the prominence of the Li family in Hong Kong. “The feeling is,” says DeGolyer, “if they can’t stop the Li faction from putting in Henry Tang despite all his flaws, we might as well change our name to Li Town.”
The Hong Kong people who aren’t on the election committee can still influence the vote. Polls of the general public put Tang more than 30 points behind Leung, and some members of the committee who would like to support Tang can’t stomach voting for someone so unpopular. Hong Kong doesn’t have universal suffrage, “but we still have to respect public opinion,” says James Tien, honorary chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party and an elector himself. The contest between Tang and Leung “is pretty much like a choice between two rotten apples.” The Liberals’ 60 members on the election committee will probably cast blank votes, he says. If no candidate gets a majority of the votes, then the committee gets to vote again in May, with new candidates able to join the race.