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March 27, 2017

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Beijing's interference in HK's chief executive race is counterproductive

Beijing is worried that the front-runner in the Hong Kong Chief Executive elections, former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor (林鄭月娥), may face difficulties in governing if she ends up with more votes but significantly lower popularity than former Financial Secretary John Tsang.

This appears to be the rationale for Beijing's open interference in the Hong Kong election, even though Lam herself has warned that such favoritism by Beijing may be counterproductive, making her vulnerable to the charge of being "Beijing's candidate."

Wang Guangya, head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, has called it "reasonable and indisputable" for the central government to "be concerned" about the election. Yet being concerned is one thing, open interference is another.

Wang has laid down four criteria for the next chief executive: Someone who loves China and Hong Kong; who has Beijing's trust; who has the ability to govern, and who has the support of Hong Kong people.

But Chinese actions seem to make it clear that "support of Hong Kong people" isn't as important as "Beijing's trust." In fact, the more Beijing tries to twist arms in Hong Kong to line up support for Lam, the more likely it is to generate resentment to her candidacy.

Misguided Obsession

Polls indicate a gap between the two leading contestants, with Tsang consistently ahead by a substantial margin. In fact, Beijing's machinations may have resulted in her increased political isolation, with the public seeing her as "Beijing's choice" rather than as the most experienced and qualified candidate in the race, which she is.

Beijing's obsession with Lam's votes in the roughly 1,200-member Election Committee election March 26 is misguided. Of course, squeaking through with a minimum of 601 votes may not look that impressive, but if Beijing's aim is to strengthen Lam's hand as chief executive by increasing her majority, pressuring committee members to vote for Lam is short-sighted: it will be widely thought that, but for Beijing's pressure, she would have gained far fewer votes. That alone will be a major impediment to her governance.

As the South China Morning Post reported, "Hongkongers generally favor Tsang in the race but accept that Lam stands a better chance of winning Beijing's blessing."

That is to say, Beijing's blessing outweighs the support of the Hong Kong people. This breeds cynicism since people in general realize that the winner is not going to be the person supported by the people, but by Beijing. It is the very definition of a rigged election.

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