Hong Kong Candidates Seek Change of Tone, If Not Policies

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

The race to lead Hong Kong finally kicked off this week after the Chinese government cleared two top officials to vie for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s job.

Leung’s unexpected withdrawal last month remade a race that looked set to become a confidence vote on the unpopular leader, whose confrontational style has been blamed for exacerbating unrest in the former British colony. Instead, his would-be successors are promising a more accommodating approach, even though most want little change to current policies to boost the economy, cool property prices or overhaul local elections.

“It is difficult for a CE who is supposed to be serving Hong Kong people, if he or she is every day constantly required to carry out what has already been decided in Beijing, without fully taking into account sentiments in Hong Kong,” said Alan Leong, a former leader of the pro-democracy Civic Party who made an unsuccessful bid for the top job in 2007. 

While the chief executive leads Hong Kong’s government, writes policy and introduces legislation, the job has a more important unofficial role: advising Beijing on how to achieve its goals without ruffling too many feathers. Candidates’ first challenge will be securing at least 150 nominations from the 1,200-member election committee that will select a winner March 26.

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

The “small-circle election” involves less than 0.2 percent of the city’s 7.3 million people and inspired the Occupy protests in 2014. The electors were picked last month from professional and industry sectors stacked with pro-China loyalists, although a record 326 people considered to not be in Beijing’s corner secured votes. Still, the winner will be subject to China’s veto, making support from Beijing crucial.

Here the latest list of candidates to watch:

The Favorite

Carrie Lam

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

Former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, 59, earned a reputation for playing good cop to Leung’s bad cop, meeting with the Occupy protesters when he wouldn’t. That softer style has helped her keep her approval ratings high despite steadfast support for her boss. She had planned to retire before Leung unexpectedly backed out and made her the perceived favorite to take up his China-backed agenda. Lam was accused of her own high-handedness after a visit to Beijing last month, when she announced plans for a local branch of the capital’s Palace Museum without first consulting the public.

The Popular One

John Tsang

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

Former Finance Secretary John Tsang, 65, had to wait more than a month for the State Council in Beijing to approve his resignation and clear his candidacy, which has been interpreted as a sign that authorities aren’t eager for his victory. Tsang, who helped steered the city through the global financial crisis, brings a self-depreciating affability that has helped make him the city’s most popular official. He’s not proposing a big break from Leung’s policies -- much of which he helped enact -- but rather more inclusion. At his campaign kick-off Thursday, Tsang said a “proper dialogue” was needed before passing political reform. Otherwise, “we are just banging our heads against the wall.”

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 a 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. Notwithstanding her first attempt, she has vowed to tighten national security, as well as revive China-backed proposals to overhaul elections. “I absolutely have a sense of responsibility. I admitted my mistakes, I apologized,” a teary Ip told reporters on hearing Leung had publicly praised Lam, who’s winning over some of Ip’s supporters.

The Outlier

Woo Kwok-hing

Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Little-known retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, 70, unexpectedly announced his candidacy in October. 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. In fact, he has even suggested passing a law to prohibit the Chinese government from intervening in the city’s internal affairs.

The Wing-Waiters

Jasper Tsang

Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images

It’s not too late for other candidates to emerge, despite the crowded field. 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.” There’s also the “pan-democratic” camp, with its record number of electors. The bloc could nominate its own candidate, tip the balance for another or merely sit on its hands.

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