30 March 2017

A Predictable Predicament for Hong Kong

From the eurozone to South Korea, elections are sweeping the world, bringing with them a high likelihood of dramatic policy change. But when Hong Kong's 1,200-member election committee convenes to vote on the city's next chief executive March 26, it will likely usher in more of the same. The Chinese government has extensive influence in the city's electoral system under the Basic Law, which gives it the prerogative to screen candidates, steer the nomination process and exercise veto power as it sees fit. Beijing's active, albeit typically covert, involvement in Hong Kong politics keeps candidates from the city's pan-democratic camp or emerging localist party from receiving nomination for — let alone winning — chief executive and ensures a steady succession of pro-China leaders in the top post. Unlike the highly contentious votes elsewhere in the world, then, the outcome of the Hong Kong election is practically a foregone conclusion.

It will be no less consequential, however. Hong Kong, a bustling metropolis of some 7 million people, is nearing a crossroads. The next chief executive's inauguration on July 1 will coincide with the 20th anniversary of the city's return to Chinese control. (Perhaps fittingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely be in the city that day to preside over commemorative festivities.) Over the past five years, Hong Kong has undergone massive social and economic change as antagonism toward China's rule there has grown. Now the city is nearly halfway through its 50-year transitional period, and the next leader will play a crucial role in determining its fate. No matter who wins, the new chief executive's main task will be to reconcile Hong Kong's social and economic priorities with Beijing's desire to integrate the city with the mainland. But whether that objective can be achieved is a different story.


Even though it wields considerable influence over the process, the Chinese government is worried about how this year's election will play out. Threatened by the growing hostility toward it and the rising popularity of Hong Kong's pan-democratic movements, Beijing has taken an unusually direct role in the race. The Chinese government threw its weight behind Carrie Lam, a steadfast ally and Hong Kong's former chief secretary, well before the nomination vote. Beijing championed Lam over her two opponents, former Hong Kong financial chief John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge, rallying support for her among the election committee's pro-Beijing faction, which makes up about two-thirds of the voting body. As a result, Lam is almost certain to win the 601 votes necessary to secure the chief executive position in a single round. (If no candidate secures more than 600 votes in the election, the two top contenders will face off in a second round of voting.)

Still, her victory will be far from uncontested. Compared with Tsang, for instance, Lam is far less popular with the general public. And that she failed to win a single endorsement from pan-democratic or separatist representatives in the open nomination vote suggests that she will be hard-pressed to clinch their support in the secret ballot for the chief executive post itself. Beijing's efforts to clear Lam's path to victory, moreover, could backfire by fueling public dissent over China's heavy-handed rule in Hong Kong. At the same time, however, an electoral loss for Lam would likely prompt Beijing to interfere even more directly in Hong Kong politics, perhaps even by challenging the election's results, and to tighten its grip on power in the city.

A City in Decline

The election will take place at a decisive moment in Hong Kong's history. In the two decades since the United Kingdom turned its former colony over to China, the city has begun to lose some of its prestige. Its economic growth has fallen below 2 percent in the past three years — less than half the annual rate it sustained for nearly two decades prior — mainly because of stagnant consumer spending and sluggish exports. Socio-economic inequality, meanwhile, has deepened as property prices skyrocket and prospects for upward mobility drop off, especially for the younger generations. Beijing is as much to blame for the problem as Hong Kong is. After all, mainland China's economic slowdown, coupled with the global slump, is responsible in large part for the city's current economic woes.

But Hong Kong's polarized politics, growing resistance to China's attempts at economic and political integration, and rising nativist movement have also taken their toll on the city's economy, whose financial and service sectors rely on China. Today, the city is struggling to keep those flagship industries, which together account for 90 percent of its gross domestic product, competitive as rival sectors in mainland metropolises such as Shenzhen and Shanghai gain ground. To maintain its advantage, Hong Kong has launched efforts to diversify its economy and restore its political and economic autonomy. These moves, however, run counter to Beijing's ambitions to bring the city more fully under its political and economic control. The city's recalcitrance, along with its burgeoning independence movement, have encouraged the Chinese government to crack down on Hong Kong, further straining relations between the two and perpetuating cyclical street protests there.

Mission Impossible

Regardless of who wins the March 26 election, Hong Kong's next chief executive will inherit the myriad socio-economic and political challenges facing the city. Each of the three candidates has focused on social and economic issues, promising to cut taxes for low-income individuals and small businesses and to expand affordable housing. In this respect, their platforms represent a continuation of current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policies. The far more difficult undertaking, though, will be managing the city's diverging political imperatives. The next leader, like Leung before him or her, will face the impossible task of balancing Beijing's wishes with those of the electorate in Hong Kong. The Chinese government insists that the city implement political reforms, such as a controversial anti-subversion measure to promote cultural and educational assimilation, while maintaining that it cannot grant Hong Kong voters full suffrage in the next chief executive election. The city's residents, on the other hand, want to keep their political autonomy and receive full franchise.

Leung's failure to reconcile these conflicting demands indefinitely postponed electoral reforms planned for this year, cost him credibility with Beijing and sparked large, violent protests in Hong Kong, including the Umbrella Movement. And the job won't be any easier for his successor. Lam, if elected, will have especially little room to maneuver because of her close relationship with Beijing. (In fact, her friendly stance toward the mainland has earned her a reputation as "Leung 2.0.") Just as the upcoming election promises more of the same for the city, Hong Kong's social, economic and political problems will present much the same challenges to the next chief executive that they did to the outgoing leader.

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