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Hong Kong Chief Faces Crisis of Legitimacy
[Analysis] What's good for Beijing is often at odds with the demands of the people of Hong Kong
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2005-06-21 13:59 (KST)   
©2005 Deryck Arnold
When Donald Tsang Yam-kuen travels to Beijing this week to receive the blessing from the authorities as Hong Kong's new Chief Executive, he will have won the support of 710 individuals in this city of 6.8 million. Hardly a legitimate mandate by any standard, but what is good enough for the central government is often at odds with the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's labyrinthine "electoral system" is primarily designed to insure Beijing has ultimate control. It's a perplexing process that is as complex as it is dull in its predictability. The outcome is predetermined based on whatever the authorities in Beijing, not the people of Hong Kong, desire. Like many political structures in China, the architects have built Orwellian characteristics of doublespeak into the system.

Its very design causes the discourse of democracy to get bandied about as though it were a legitimate feature of the process. Thus, the media reports on an "election campaign" when only 800 individuals are allowed to vote, or refers to Tsang, Beijing's choice, as a "candidate" when the possibility of his failing is a non-starter. The euphemism, "small-circle election" is also repeatedly employed to refer to what in reality is a thoroughly undemocratic process.

When Hong Kong needs a new leader a potential candidate must first obtain at least one hundred nominations from an 800-member Election Committee (EC) just to qualify. The EC is an elite group drawn from various sectors of the community, including labor and finance. Before the process even begins, Beijing puts forward their choice, Tsang in this case. Tsang then controls the pace of events. On June 2, when he declared his intention to be Chief Executive, the two-week nomination period officially began.

The nomination procedure requires transparency and each of the 800 members must publicly declare their preferred choice within the two-week period. It doesn't require a rocket scientist to understand how those who essentially owe their privileged positions to Beijing would avoid biting the hand that feeds them.

In 2002, after Beijing put their preferred choice forward, Tung Chee-hwa, he faced zero competition and obtained 714 nominations. While Beijing usually gets what it wants, it fails to understand that its tactics give rise to crises of legitimacy. A year after Tung's "victory," 500,000 were in the streets demonstrating against his policies and demanding his resignation.

Another curious feature of the nomination period is that the media is not required to give equal time to different "pre-candidates." Officially, it's not an "election" yet and as a result, Tsang has been given almost exclusive attention. He's been granted extensive radio/television interviews and front-page newspaper coverage repeatedly featuring him in such favorable poses as gardening and smiling broadly with supporters. This overwhelming free publicity has caused many to give credit for his success to the cameras, not his policies.

Despite all the choreography, sometimes surprises, however small, can and do occur. One EC member, Victor Sit Fung-shuen, a veteran deputy to the NPC and a Professor at the University of Hong Kong's department of geography, bucked expectations to support Democratic Party candidate Lee Wing-tat, stating, "I would like to see genuine contest in the chief executive race. Forcing EC members to make their positions known through the nomination process amounts to a distortion of the election system."

By highlighting this "distortion of the election system" Sit expressed the frustration that both democrats and pro-Beijing supporters have shared over the past two weeks. Tsang has been blamed for using the transparency of the system to force EC members to declare their support for the mainland or not. If an EC member failed to nominate Tsang he could be accused of not supporting the SAR and central government. Tsang aggressively worked to eliminate the two competitors that were struggling for the 100 nominations just to qualify to compete.

Beijing was also accused of pressuring, and in some cases intimidating EC members to support Tsang. Some members even left Hong Kong to avoid the pressure. Sit pointed out, in a not too subtle reproach of Tsang, "Any strong candidate who has high ideals should stop canvassing after winning 100 or 200 nominations, to give other contenders chance to enter the race."

Tsang has also been accused of stifling debate, of obstructing a free discussion within the community about what the issues are and where he stands. Instead, he met, according to his website, in "closed door meetings" with individual EC members and refused to attend any public forums with the other two competitors. This was no doubt part of his and Beijing's strategy. If public debate were allowed, Beijing's greatest fear would surface- universal suffrage.

Democratic Party competitor, Lee Wing-tat said, "Maybe the Election Committee are the bosses who really elect him and that is why he is so anxious about them. But for me, the most important thing is the support of the public."

As an indication of Beijing's attitude, in an article, "Why Bother with an Election," Lau Nai-keung, an influential mainland official, dismissed elections as "gestures" of "political correctness." It's not surprising that the rule of law is flouted and subjected to the whims of political expediency when mainland officials advocate such positions.

Another example of this disregard for the rule of law occurred after former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa prematurely resigned last March and a row erupted over the length of his replacement's term. As local lawmakers pointed out, the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, unequivocally states five years.

But Beijing offered a different interpretation. It became clear they felt Tsang could not be sufficiently trusted for an entire five years. After the fiasco that was Tung's tenure, Beijing wanted, and got, a trial period of approximately two and a half years. Beijing handed down a re-interpretation, changing the rules to fit its desires. Tsang will now serve until 2007 when another nomination period will take place for a five-year term. To the disgust of both local and international legal experts, this re-interpretation strategy has been used before and is being raised with alarming regularity. Constitutional expert, Yash Ghai, professor of Public Law at the University of Hong Kong stated:

"The Basic Law cannot serve its function as the supreme law of Hong Kong in the face of all this. Appointing Mr. Tung's successor for less than five years would be another, and this time perhaps fatal, blow to the rule of law."

As a result of the nomination process, one thing remains clear: the people of Hong Kong were not allowed a contest. The irony is that Tsang is exceptionally popular. Had the people been given the vote he most certainly would have won. However, because of the undemocratic "election" process, the same problems of legitimacy that dogged the Tung administration will likely continue to plague Tsang. As founding chairman of the Democratic Party Martin Lee said of Tsang, a 40-year bureaucrat, "Donald is very efficient, but he will be a 101 percent 'yes man' to Beijing."

Even long time Beijing stalwarts such as Victor Sit Fung-shuen acknowledge, "Donald should learn the lesson of Tung" that overwhelming support "did not necessarily mean he enjoyed the whole-hearted support of the committee members and the community."

Indeed, when Tsang actually begins to do some work it will come as no surprise that the same issues that troubled Tung such as universal suffrage erupt once more. Predictably, that is what happens when people are prevented from having a say in the running of their lives. The sooner Beijing realizes this, the sooner Hong Kong will cease to endure another crisis of legitimacy.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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