Hong Kong is bringing democracy to China

By David Pilling

Thanks to the votes of 689 people, Leung Chun-ying will be the next leader of Hong Kong. That’s not much of a mandate in a city of 7m souls. Many people have more Facebook friends. Why should anyone care about the outcome of an “election” restricted to a tiny clique of the elite? The man selected as Hong Kong’s third chief executive since it reverted to China in 1997 was vetted by an election committee of just 1,200, many of whom took their cue from Beijing.

Yet the election was important. Hong Kong, the world’s third-biggest financial centre by many measures, may never be quite the same again. There are several reasons for this. First, Mr Leung is likely to be a different sort of leader from anyone who has governed Hong Kong before. Unlike Donald Tsang, the bow-tie-wearing incumbent, the chief executive-elect has no strong connections to the British civil service nor to the property tycoons who still run the place. The son of a policeman, Mr Leung comes from much humbler stock than Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive, who inherited his father’s shipping business.

So close are Mr Leung’s ties to the mainland that some suspect he is a closet member of the Communist party. That claim, strenuously denied by Mr Leung himself, derives partly from the fact that, as a young man, Beijing entrusted him with a prominent role in drawing up Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Mr Leung, who begins his five-year term on July 1, sets out with far lower popular support than either of his predecessors. But if he is to win a second term he will have to rectify that since the next election could well be conducted by universal suffrage. In the campaign, Mr Leung pledged to pay less attention to big business and more to the needs of the ordinary citizen. He has promised to address the yawning wealth gap and to do something about the soaring property prices that prevent the poor, and even the middle class, from owning homes. Parts of the establishment have branded him a dangerous populist who could endanger decades of laisser-faire capitalism. That is unlikely. David Webb, a shareholder rights activist, says Mr Leung will not jeopardise Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s premier financial market. But, cut free of obligations to the city’s tycoons, he may have a more interventionist agenda. That could mean policies to control exuberant property prices or to address low wages and poor working conditions.

Hong Kong could do with a leader who worries more about the social problemslurking between the shiny skyscrapers. More government action on tackling choking smog would also be welcome. Mr Leung’s challenge will be to address such problems without killing the free-market spirit on which Hong Kong has thrived.

Second, because of his strong links to the mainland, it is reasonable to worry whether the new chief executive will be a Beijing “yes man” or even whether Hong Kong’s distinct identity under “one country, two systems” provisions will erode. Mr Leung did little to allay such concerns when he spent 90 minutes with Beijing’s liaison office just a few hours after being selected.

He has also said he may seek to reintroduce national security legislation in the form of the infamous Article 23. An aborted attempt in 2003 to pass such legislation brought half a million protesters on to the streets amid fears that it would curb cherished freedoms of speech and association. Frank Ching, a political commentator, warns that any attempt to resuscitate Article 23 would bring turmoil. The betting must be that neither Mr Leung nor Beijing would risk that.

The third significance of Mr Leung’s selection is the manner in which it came about. Against all the odds, the profoundly undemocratic process incorporated many of the elements of a real democracy. There were polls, public campaigns and intense newspaper scrutiny of the candidates. The frontrunner, Henry Tang, lost public support and was promptly ditched by Beijing.

Christine Loh, head of Civic Exchange, a think-tank, called it a “boisterous, no-holds barred campaign”, in which the candidates’ positions were thrashed out and publicly dissected. In that sense, the process was a dry run for 2017, when all 3.6m of the city’s registered voters expect a say. Mainlanders have watched the Hong Kong contest with as much fascination as they followed Taiwan’s authentically democratic presidential election in January. Both events contrasted with China’s secretive leadership transition, including this month’smysterious purge of Bo Xilai.

Hong Kong’s public was clearly engaged in the campaign for chief executive. Few can pretend its people lack the maturity to participate in a proper election. Even Mr Leung, Beijing’s man or not, has endorsed the idea of universal suffrage next time round. Hong Kong, he says, belongs to everyone, not just a “small circle”. In one corner of China, this is now accepted wisdom. That is truly worthy of note.

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