His main rival, Leung Chun-ying, a land surveyor, also has wealthy supporters and China’s blessing. He also has been tarnished by scandal and has a reputation, particularly among those who know and mistrust him, for deviousness. Many believe that he is a secret member of the party, which he denies.
Leung, known as C.Y., has nonetheless managed to cast himself as a man of the people in sync with ordinary concerns. Playing on anti-tycoon sentiment, he has capitalized on the fact that his father was a police officer — not a wealthy businessman like Tang’s.
Fall from grace
When Britain ruled Hong Kong, local billionaires had the status of folk heroes. Li Ka-shing, one of the first ethnic Chinese businessmen to muscle his way into a previously British-dominated business elite, was known as “Superman.” Li, a big backer of Tang and a member of the selection committee that meets Sunday, has since grown much richer and was recently ranked Asia’s richest person by Forbes magazine, with a net worth estimated at more than $25 billion.
But, like many of his fellow moguls, he has lost most of his support among ordinary people angry over what they see as a rigged system riddled with cartels and cozy ties between government and business.
Tang, the struggling chief executive candidate, has been constantly ridiculed for a remark he made last year in response to protesters denouncing the privileges of the super-rich. (He told them to stop complaining and ask themselves: “Why can’t I become the next Li Ka-shing?”)
“People used to admire and wanted to be like tycoons, but now there is no way you can be like them,” said Michael Chugani, a political commentator and host of a weekly television interview show. “A handful of people control big property, the big supermarkets, the two drugstore chains, the mobile phone companies. . . . Tycoons are seen as crooks, and the government is seen as being in bed with them.”
Hong Kongers reacted with fury last month when local media revealed that Tsang, the chief executive, had secured a bargain rental deal for a penthouse apartment just across the border in the Chinese city of Shenzhen and had palled around with tycoons on their luxury yachts and private planes. Summoned by legislators to explain himself, Tsang offered an abject apology. An opinion poll found that three-quarters of those surveyed had lost faith in the chief executive, also the son of a colonial-era police officer.
On the surface, Hong Kong is booming. Its economy grew by 5 percent last year, and unemployment stands at just over 3 percent. But although the number of registered private jets at Hong Kong’s airport has risen from two to 50 since China took over and high-end boutiques are packed with wealthy shoppers from the mainland, nearly a fifth of the population lives beneath the poverty line.
The city, according to a recent report by Morgan Stanley, has become increasingly polarized economically, with “a higher percentage of households in the lowest and highest brackets and lower portion in the middle currently, compared with in 1996,” the last full year of British rule.
The selection of a new chief executive through a process in which only .0168 percent of the population gets a vote has intensified a feeling that “the whole system stinks,” Chugani said. And the nearly 1,200 people who do get to vote are so bitterly divided that the ballot Sunday might not produce a winner, which would force a new contest, possibly with new candidates, in May. (Beijing has pledged to allow a real election by popular vote in 2017.)
Even some stalwart pro-China politicians worry that the race between Tang and Leung (and a third candidate who doesn’t stand a chance because he’s loathed by China) has become a battle between feuding, wealthy elites lined up behind one or the other of the two main candidates.
“They represent very powerful camps with lots of interests,” said Tsang Yok-sing, who heads the legislature and who, unlike business barons, supported China long before it became profitable. “I’m still ignorant of most of these interests — and I don’t want to find out.”