Candidates to become the next leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong are engaged in an unusual bout of mudslinging over private affairs and business deals, turning what is usually a staid, scripted contest into a public spectacle _ not necessarily to Beijing's liking.
Though the race pits two pro-Beijing candidates, one is a symbol of self-made success and the other a fixture of Hong Kong's moneyed establishment who is China's favorite but lagging in the polls. One of the juiciest revelations is that one candidate had an extramarital affair, an unusual public disclosure for a conservative ruling class that dislikes scandal.
The race is giving Hong Kong, a former British colony and global center of finance and trade, something that has been lacking in previous chief executive races: a taste of democratic politics. It's also generating popular interest in a campaign that Beijing prefers to be kept among Hong Kong's trusted elite.
"The chief executive race is shaping up to be more exciting than originally anticipated," said an editorial in the Hong Kong Standard last week. Since the two leading candidates declared their intentions to run, it said, "one can expect their canvassing to become more vigorous. At the same time, the media is expected _ even counted on _ to leave no stone unturned in scrutinizing the candidates."
Though Hong Kong has democratic elections for the legislature and local councils, Beijing is refusing to allow it for the chief executive until 2017 at the earliest _ a sign of the communist leadership's preference for carefully arranged outcomes. Instead, the chief executive will be chosen in March by a selection committee, 1,200 members of the business and political elite, which for this round was elected Monday. Previously, the campaigns have been formalities, because there was only one clear preferred candidate, making it easy for the selection committee which is packed with Beijing loyalists.
This time the choice is between two main candidates: Henry Tang, a former senior government official and scion of a wealthy family from Shanghai who is Beijing's favorite, and Leung Chun-ying, the son of a police officer who got rich running a property consultancy and became the head of the Executive Council, which advises the government on policy.
Tang has been seen as a possible candidate for the top job since joining the government a decade ago. But he also has a reputation for being gaffe-prone and a mediocre administrator. A noted wine connoisseur, his most notable achievement during his tenure in government was abolishing wine duty in 2008, which helped turn Hong Kong into a global wine auction hub.
In a campaign misstep, his plans to announce his candidacy last month during a visit to a working-class neighborhood got derailed by a small but noisy mob of protesters using megaphones to accuse him of making the visit for political purposes. Tang was forced to duck into the subway system and make his declaration while changing trains.
Leung took a veiled shot at Tang's attempt to connect with the grass roots. "You can't just start going to the local communities when there is an election," the South China Morning Post newspaper quoted him saying.
Leung has played up his working-class background, telling supporters he helped his mother assemble plastic flowers when he was 11 to earn the family extra money. He's had to fight off press accusations of poor business dealings and untruthfulness while giving evidence as a witness for a 2001 court case.
But it was the affair that first captivated Hong Kongers and let them know this race would be different. After local media speculated about a relationship with a former assistant, Tang admitted that he had "strayed in his love life and I feel deeply remorseful and guilty." He did not give any more details after meeting reporters briefly in front of his home, hand-in-hand with his wife of 27 years.
"Henry Tang has fulfilled all of the stereotypes about the wealthy playboy image that he came from," said Michael DeGolyer, a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Public opinion polls show that Leung enjoys much more support from the general public than Tang. While popularity was previously an unimportant factor in the chief executive selection process, Tang's lack of it is complicating decisionmaking in Beijing.
Nearly 53 percent of 1,012 people surveyed said they would pick Leung in a two-candidate race, giving him a 26 percentage point lead over Tang, a Hong Kong University survey found last week.
It's important for the chief executive to be both trusted by Beijing and respected by Hong Kong people, who aren't shy about voicing their unhappiness with Beijing. In 2003, half a million people took to the streets over proposed anti-subversion legislation that helped force the eventual resignation of the city's first chief executive.
With Henry Tang, "Chinese leaders favor a certain candidate, but this candidate is less popular and if Beijing goes to support a less popular candidate then there's a danger that the legitimacy of the chief executive, the legitimacy of the whole electoral process may be in doubt," said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong. "And that's the dilemma of Beijing at the moment."
Leung Chun-ying campaign site: http://cyleung2012.com
Henry Tang campaign site: http://www.henrytang.hk
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