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Why all the losers in Hong Kong’s chief executive race deserve our vote … of thanks

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-03-27
Alice Wu says the losing candidates showed the way for the incoming chief executive, from raising critical questions on ‘one country, two systems’ to highlighting the importance of heeding public sentiment

For all who stepped up to the plate to contend for the office of Hong Kong chief executive: thank you for making it a contested, though pre-determined, race.

Not only did some of them brush aside the great disincentive of being made predestined losers, they stuck to it to the end.

Whatever our politics, they are to be commended for putting themselves on the line, and for the personal sacrifices they made to get, or at least try to get, their names on the ballot.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the only aspiring contender out of the lot to have gone through democratic elections, has done this twice. True to her “comeback girl” persona, twice she put herself out there and twice she was squeezed out, forced to drop out of the race because she was not “able” to get the 150 nominations needed. She was not “able” to, mind, not because she should never have tried, or because there weren’t enough nominations to go around. She was made unable to.

She was not the odd woman out, especially since this time it was basically a contest of ex-civil servants. The shameful way the powers that be treated her, twice over now, are the darkest moments of this city’s chief executive race.

Beijing may see bullying Ip out of the race as serving a greater purpose, but it has made Ip the reluctant poster girl for its enemies, opposed to the idea of a Beijing-controlled nomination committee in any talks about political reform.

Kudos to Woo Kwok-hing for getting the ball rolling for this election by being the first to officially throw his hat into the ring – a breath of fresh air as we suffocated under the “wait and see” political atmosphere. He was the first to raise the obvious question to other rumoured contenders: “What are you waiting for?” As someone who was never considered a serious contender, the retired judge surely posed the most serious question of this race and perhaps the city’s ultimate political question. The city was waiting for Beijing to make up its mind about who to back. Other contenders were playing green light/red light with Beijing as the clock ticked. As an “outsider”, Woo certainly shook things up and pushed everyone’s buttons, but he went one better.

His question points to the source of this city’s political angst and frustrations. It explains why political helplessness floods Hong Kong’s political consciousness.

Watching those wishing to run for the city’s most powerful post wait for Beijing’s explicit blessings, or at least non-objection, made the promise of a “high degree of autonomy” a farcical delusion.

Political powerlessness permeates our air. Woo worked hard to secure nominations and, while this system means he never stood a chance of winning, he has possibly proposed the way out of political fatalism. And it would be wise for the newly elected chief executive to take heed.

Unless Hong Kong passes a law that criminalises the very thing – interference by mainland authorities – that Article 22 of our Basic Law prohibits, then all talk of upholding and protecting the “one country, two systems” principle is truly just that, empty talk.

As the race entered its final weeks, disturbing and ridiculous rumours, such as cast ballots would undergo fingerprint analysis, made their rounds in political circles. One could speculate about the source of these rumours, but all that would yield are just more conspiracy theories. The fact that these rumours needed refuting speaks of how “believable” they are. These rumours would not have survived if not for the avalanche of reports of the blatant and excessive lobbying for one candidate by those north of the Shenzhen River.

They were an affront to “one country, two systems” – and there will be repercussions that will challenge the very person those concerted efforts were supposed to benefit. The challenges of governance will be ever more pronounced. These politically stifling efforts will only exacerbate feelings of political powerlessness and feed the “political oppression” narrative the localists swear by.

Hats off to John Tsang Chun-wah for being a good sport, playing the role of a good sparring partner for a former colleague. The most appealing candidate for the public ran a campaign with the greatest popular appeal. Marked out as the populist candidate, Tsang proved his critics wrong. His cardinal sin wasn’t his supposed “populism”. It was getting the support of pan-democrats. But to mend the social and political rifts, as all candidates pledged to do, crossing the political aisle is a necessity. Tsang put restarting the political reform process front and centre of his platform not because he is a dangerous populist, but because he is a realist. The crises of legitimacy that administrations past have had to struggle with will only grow more disabling, and the political environment more volatile, if politics is swept under the rug. And without political legitimacy, the mission of improving livelihoods and developing the economy will continue to face political headwinds.

The most valuable outcome of a democratic contested race is that it gives the winner the chance to pay more attention to what the voters are thinking and really want.

John Tsang with a young supporter during his election campaign on March 16. Photo: AP

While what we had was a far cry from a democratic or truly contested race, Tsang perhaps offered the winning candidate a way into the hearts and minds of the public. Under the current system and political environment, Tsang’s tactic would never have won him the seat. But his tactic is exactly what the chief executive-elect would need when in office, in the conduct of which public sentiment plays a crucial role.

And finally, congratulations to the newly elected chief executive of Hong Kong. You have a very tall order to fill. Mao Zedong (毛澤東) may have considered you to be among those who “hold up half the sky,” but Li Ka-shing expects you to be nothing short of a Chinese mythical goddess tasked with the job to “mend the heavens”.

It is my sincere wish that you remain tough in the face of future storms, as you have demonstrated to have been more than capable of doing in the past.

Surely there will be plenty of opportunities to prove your critics wrong, but the work to mend the divided community – as you have pledged – begins right now.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA