There are two welcome developments in the current election campaign. First is the recognition by all three candidates that a popular mandate matters, irrespective of the tiny size of the electorate that will secure the top job for one of them.
This does not make the process a democratic election but it is an explicit acknowledgement that public support is necessary for effective government. And this is significant even if the candidate currently leading in opinion polls is not elected on 26 March.
The second is the emerging maturity of the pan-democratic bloc. Gone for the moment are the kindergarten antics and tantrums. Instead there is a mature consideration of how best to exploit their representation on the election committee. If this new professionalism carries over into Legco it may finally emerge as a valuable deliberative chamber.
These developments are partially obscured by the obsession of the commentariat – journalists and assorted experts – with the candidates’ views on universal suffrage. The simple truth is that Beijing alone has the power to advance the process and neither John Tsang, nor Carrie Lam nor Judge Woo can force the pace.
Critically, the obsession overlooks what the election is really about: how far Beijing is prepared to go to control Hong Kong, irrespective of the Basic Law.
Public concern has previously been aroused by the bookseller incident and the more recent abduction of a billionaire from the Four Seasons Hotel to assist mainland authorities with unspecified inquiries.
In the course of the current campaign, representatives of Beijing have been lobbying intensively on one candidate’s behalf, to the embarrassment of the perceived beneficiary of this support, Carrie Lam, while John Tsang, the leader in opinion polls, has been reduced to telling anyone who will listen there really are people in Beijing who love him. Humiliating.
Also disturbing was the suggestion by Tsang Yok-sing, Legco’s former president, that Beijing should appoint an adviser to the incoming Chief Executive to help guide them on what was or not acceptable policy to Beijing. He offered an assurance this would not interfere with the autonomy of Hong Kong. Yes, really.
And then there was the call from mainland interests for fewer foreign judges to be employed in Hong Kong. This is a contravention of Article 22 of the Basic Law forbidding interference in the affairs of Hong Kong that it administers on its own in accordance with the Law. That is clearly the case with the appointment of judges.
The Government in Beijing has obviously concluded that One Country, Two Systems is not working. Calls in Hong Kong for independence look too much like two countries, two systems. Further, the population of the HKSAR shows little inclination to love China or its citizens.
The only alternative to loving China is to fear or respect it and achieving such an outcome will be pursued by Beijing, whether this involves further interpretations of the Basic Law or merely ignoring it.
The core but unstated issue for the candidates in the election is whether or not increasing encroachment from the Mainland can be halted. It is unlikely to be reversed.
The positive developments mentioned at the beginning of this post are helpful but much will depend on the political skills of the candidates. On this issue much remains to be proven.
Carrie Lam is a highly intelligent and competent administrator. Her campaign launch was professionally staged and executed. Since then, there have been many stumbles: ‘toilet paper gate’, fumbled responses on LGBT issues, a proposed religious affairs bureau that was abandoned after objections by her coreligionists, and a patronising response to a protestor.
John Tsang is a more natural and genial politician than Carrie Lam. As has been pointed out by rivals, he lacks a history of significant administrative achievement (food trucks don’t qualify) and there are question marks over his toughness.
As for Judge Woo, there is not a lot to say on the grounds that his chances of being Chief Executive are slight and the probability of a Trump-like break through even slighter.
Managing a mid-sized, rich city with a highly educated population should be straightforward but political and social changes in the past 20 years have created difficulties. The incoming CE will have to address a known list of problems – the cost of housing, the wealth gap, pressures on health and education, pollution – while balancing demands from different sectors of society with the expectations of the Government in Beijing. And, yes, the CE will have to find a way to work with Legco. It will require statesmanship of a high order.
The two leading candidates in the race are drawn from a small pool of civil servants. At present, neither looks comfortable under the intense scrutiny of the campaign, which will not diminish when the election is over. But as they say, cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Let’s hope so.