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June 27, 2017

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Choppy waters ahead for Hong Kong and its chief executive

As expected, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor triumphed in Sunday's election, winning 777 votes from the 1,194-member Election Committee to become Hong Kong's next chief executive. She will be the first woman to lead Hong Kong since its emergence as a free port in the 19th century. Lam will take office July 1, the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong under China's formula of "one country, two systems," with the former British colony enjoying a "high degree of autonomy."

Her victory was decisive, with former Financial Secretary John Tsang winning 365 votes and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing securing 21.

Lam has worked for the government since 1980, rising to the second-ranking position in 2012. Her ability is undisputed but, as rival Tsang pointed out, hard work alone doesn't make a political leader. Her popularity ratings during the campaign were substantially lower than his.

Political support from Beijing, which wields significant influence over the Election Committee, ensured her victory. But it also highlights her greatest vulnerability because she was seen as "Beijing's favored candidate."

According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the chief executive "shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee" and "appointed by the Central People's Government." China has made it clear that the appointment is not a formality; it can refuse to appoint the winner. Earlier this month, China's third-ranking leader, Zhang Dejiang, asserted that Beijing has the right to "step in" to the territory's leadership contest. And "stepping in" begins with the nomination process and ends on election day.

Thus legislator Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, whose government career began even earlier than Lam and who heads her own political party, failed to get the required 150 nominations from the Election Committee. Beijing was concerned that Ip would siphon votes from Lam. It wanted to ensure that Lam would win in a landslide.

Chinese officials said during the campaign that a chief executive must possess four qualities: to love China and Hong Kong, to be trusted by Beijing, to be capable of governing, and to be supported by the Hong Kong people.

Of these four, Beijing's trust is key. As the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said on Saturday: "If the chief executive doesn't have the central authorities' full trust, Hong Kong will not be able to enjoy a high degree of autonomy."

"Popularity certainly is important, but maintaining a good working relationship with the central government is also crucial," said Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest man, a few days earlier.

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