“Things have taken a very interesting turn,” said Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, a veteran pro-Beijing politician and president of Hong Kong’s local legislature who is pondering whether to throw his hat into an increasingly noisy and unpredictable ring. “If Hollywood made a movie like this, we would all have said: ‘It can’t be true.’ ”
Under British rule, Hong Kong’s leader, the governor, was sent from London. Locals played no role in his selection. He wore a funny hat with feathers. China, after regaining control 15 years ago, scrapped the hat, changed the job title to “chief executive” and set up a committee of local grandees to endorse a choice that most assumed would still be made in a distant capital, this time Beijing.
The carefully scripted plot, however, has suddenly gone haywire, adding another headache for China’s leader-in-waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping, who visited Turkey on Tuesday en route to Beijing after a trip to the United States. The political disarray in Hong Hong comes on top of an unexpected disruption to China’s own leadership transition, due to be completed at a Communist Party congress in October.
Until a week ago, the front-runner to replace Donald Tsang as Hong Kong’s chief executive was Henry Tang Ying-yen, a wealthy former senior civil servant and wine connoisseur from old Shanghai money. He had the backing of property tycoons, a host of establishment figures and Beijing. Although facing a feisty challenge from another Beijing-approved candidate — the more populist and also popular Leung Chun-ying — Tang was still expected to prevail and continue a cozy alliance between local billionaires and China’s ruling Communist Party which has dominated Hong Kong politics since the 1997 handoff.
Tang is now swamped by scandal following revelations that a family villa had, in violation of local law, been fitted with a 2,200-square-foot underground chamber allegedly equipped with a wine cellar, a spa and other luxury facilities. Tang denied that it was lavish but declined to let reporters inside to see for themselves. Television stations and other media outlets hired tall cranes to peer over the wall.
With most of Hong Kong’s residents living in tiny apartments far smaller than Mr. Tang’s illegal basement, the scandal over the “Tang Palace” has triggered an outpouring of anger over double standards. A Hong Kong University opinion poll published Sunday showed 51.3 percent of respondents want Tang to quit and nearly 80 percent think the revelations reflect poorly on his integrity.