The Race to Be Hong Kong's Leader Kicks Off

  • Meet the contenders vying to lead the Asian financial hub
  • Beijing-controlled election helped spawn 2014 Occupy protests

The race to lead Hong Kong has begun, with the favorites exchanging snipes and setting out agendas. Problem is, all but one are still awaiting the nod from Beijing to formally run in the Asian financial hub.

Hong Kong’s chief executive will be chosen by a 1,200-member election committee in March, a process that inspired the Occupy protests in 2014. Known locally as a “small-circle election,” it involves less than 0.2 percent of the city’s 7.3 million people.

The electors are picked in December from professional and industry sectors stacked with pro-China loyalists. Potential candidates who hold top government posts need to step down to run, so acceptance of their resignations is seen as a green light from Beijing. The winner is also subject to China’s veto, making it crucial to get an informal imprimatur from the Communist Party.

Officially the chief executive leads the government, formulates policy and introduces legislation. But it’s the unofficial role which is most important: advising Beijing on how to achieve its goals without ruffling too many Hong Kong feathers.

To read more about Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, click here

Here are the people to watch:

The Incumbent

Leung Chun-ying

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

While Leung Chun-ying, 62, hasn’t yet declared his candidacy, the very fact that he’s in contention for a second five-year term illustrates China’s sway. The most unpopular chief executive in Hong Kong’s post-colonial history, CY -- as he’s known -- has been criticized for being too inflexible toward pro-democracy advocates and forcing some toward the more extreme position of independence. Leung has touted his efforts to curb home prices and cut mainland visitors, which have squeezed the city’s retailers and powerful property developers. James Tien, honorary chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party and proponent of the ABC, or “Anyone But CY” campaign, last month predicted “at least a million protesters” if Leung gets re-elected.

The Popular One

John Tsang

Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

“To run or not to run, that is the question,” quipped Finance Secretary John Tsang, 65, while attending a drama based on Shakespeare’s life last weekend. It’s a question for Beijing, as well. The financial secretary’s office declined to comment on a report last week that he sent the central government a letter expressing his desire to resign and seek the chief executive’s job. Leung, his boss, urged top officials to stay focused on their work. Tsang, who steered the city through the global financial crisis, has an affable demeanor that has made him the most popular official in government and raised hopes that he can bridge widening political divides.

The Spoiler

Regina Ip

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Pro-establishment legislator Regina Ip, 66, has staged a remarkable comeback since 2003, when she resigned as security minister amid opposition to her national security law that drew half a million protesters onto the streets. She won more than 60,000 votes in September elections, more than any candidate on Hong Kong island. Ip says she would be “interested” in running, but won’t decide until after the election committee is selected in December. That hasn’t stopped her firing off zingers. Tsang? “A bit of a slacker” whose done practically nothing in 10 years as financial secretary, she said. And Leung? No public support, alas.

The Surprise Entrant

Woo Kwok-hing

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

When the little-known Woo Kwok-hing, 70, unexpectedly threw his hat into the ring last week, the retired judge became the only declared candidate. Lacking a political base, Woo advocates compromise as a salve to the city’s polarization. He wants to find a solution to electoral disputes and draft a widely acceptable national security law. Saying the people would be his “main boss,” Woo pledged to refuse any proposals that he believed would violate the city’s Basic Law that resulted from China’s negotiations with the British prior to handover in 1997, even if ordered by the central government in Beijing.

The Outliers

Jasper Tsang

Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images

Several other potential players lie in wait. Chief among them is former Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang, 70, who was Hong Kong’s most popular lawmaker when he retired in September and said he would run if necessary “to offer a genuine choice.” Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, Leung’s No. 2, is seen as a potential fall-back candidate for the Chinese leadership due to her vocal support for the government, even though she told a local newspaper in January that she wanted to retire next year. There’s also the “pan-democratic” camp, which held about a sixth of votes in the 2012 election and hopes to gain more this time around. The bloc could nominate its own candidate, tip the balance for another or merely sit on its hands.

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