Playing Along in Hong Kong

Philip Bowring – The International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG No one in this city has any illusions about enjoying a democratic system of government. Nonetheless, the current campaign for the “election” of a new chief executive is a curious spectacle, one that mixes a sense of unseriousness and good humor with some slightly disturbing echoes of Soviet-style “elections.”
This is fantasy democracy, so it is fitting that the preordained winner is Donald Tsang, the man whose government subsidies brought Disneyland to Hong Kong and is identified by his colorful bow ties. He has the backing of Beijing and of most of the 800 (out of seven million) people permitted to vote. The only outstanding issue is whether any other candidate will get 100 of those 800 to so much as win nomination and thus take the process to a formal vote.
Sir Donald, as he used to be known before the colonial title became a political liability, has a high rating in opinion polls, if only in contrast to his predecessor and given the lack of viable alternatives allowed by the political system. He has long had a high profile, as financial secretary and then as chief secretary, the No. 2 post here. He is media-friendly and as a lifetime bureaucrat knows how to make the system work. He has largely escaped blame for the muddle-headed leadership that caused the downfall of his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, two years before the end of his term.
The populace may want democracy, but if it cannot have it will settle for the efficiency with which Tsang is associated. Nor, as the majority see it, is there much to be gained, as yet at least, from being against the man whom Beijing has already chosen to serve for the next two years. So in opinion polls he stands far ahead of the Democrat Party leader Lee Wing-tat, who has put himself forward as a candidate only in the hope of spurring policy debate.
That is where the process moves from being a rather meaningless rubber stamp of a Beijing decision to having Orwellian characteristics. Television viewers are daily subject to a government-sponsored advertisement proclaiming that almost anyone can stand for chief executive. It fails to mention that the leader of Hong Kong’s main pro-democracy party is struggling to be nominated. Television news regularly leads with Tsang’s latest campaign utterance and includes gushing endorsements from more members of the elite 800 and others wishing to ingratiate themselves.
One might think that a media-savvy candidate with a good grasp of his brief would like to have some debates, to show his grasp of issues and commitment to the sort of changes that people want, like ending incestuous relationships between government and business oligarchies. Debate would show Hong Kong to be a liberal and open society (which it mostly is) and be some compensation for the absence of broadly representative government. But Tsang has been determined to snuff out his already minimal opposition by gathering the maximum of the 800 to thwart Lee’s chance of nomination. He was reported to want to “relieve my rival quickly” of the pain of losing.
The themes which come through Tsang’s platitudinous campaign manifesto are unity and patriotism – the stock in trade of authoritarian systems. In this case, unity means avoiding open debate on policy issues in order to create the appearance of consensus. The notion of patriotism is as defined by the government in Beijing, not by the hearts and minds of people here.
Tsang’s avoidance of policy specifics and desire for an overwhelming show of support from the chosen 800 are in keeping with his background. Hong Kong’s senior bureaucrats – the highest paid in the world – have long been convinced of their own righteousness and competence. For many, debate is inefficient and divisive.
Tsang has meanwhile managed the political winds with a skill that reflects his ambition. Once the loyal servant of last British governor, Chris Patten, he is now cautiously trusted by Beijing (though not by all local leftists) to combine patriotism with competence. He may wear his Catholicism on his sleeve, but not to the extent of sympathizing with mainland worshippers. He is a proponent of laissez faire economics – except when Disney or politically influential tycoons demand exceptions.
Will he use his mandate to lead where the people of Hong Kong want to go? Or will he focus on the fact that he has two years – the term decreed by Beijing – to prove that he is both obedient and competent? Or will he stumble for lack of the one outstanding quality of his predecessor, modesty? These are the questions to ask as Hong Kong wends it weary way through a nonelection.
Copyright The International Herald Tribune

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