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Why Hong Kong’s Election Features Only One Candidate

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Replacing Hong Kong’s leader is a complicated, closed-door affair that epitomizes the central problem facing the Asian financial hub: How to balance the public’s desire for autonomy with China’s demands for control? The city’s Basic Law, which came into effect the day the British left, contains the promise of a popular vote some day, but electoral reforms imposed from Beijing in 2021 made that goal even more distant. In the end, an elite group of just 1,500 people who represent business, interest groups and, above all, China’s Communist Party will choose the successor to Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sunday, May 8. An ex-cop and the city’s former No. 2 official, John Lee, is the only nominee -- the first time in two decades Hong Kong has presented a single candidate.

1. What did China agree to before the handover?

The Basic Law, or mini-constitution, codified the joint declaration signed by the governments of China and Britain in 1984 in Beijing. It enshrined the “one country, two systems” principle, which promised to give the city for 50 years a high degree of autonomy and protected its unique rights, such as to free speech and assembly -- rights not found on the mainland. It also had the “ultimate aim” of electing Hong Kong’s leader by popular vote, after a candidate had been agreed on by “a broadly representative nominating committee.”

2. How did Hong Kong used to pick its leader?

While the campaigning looked a lot like any mayoral election, with stump speeches, rallies and policy platforms, the voting was done by just 1,200 people on an Election Committee. That body was composed of representatives from sectors covering business and industry, white-collar professions, grassroots organizations and legislators. Several of Hong Kong’s billionaires also made the cut. The system was designed so China’s favored candidate prevailed, but it was sometimes close. Former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was famously elected in 2012 with a slim victory of just 689 votes, a number that became a derisive nickname for his lack of popular support in the city of 7.5 million people. Lam got 777 votes in 2017 to defeat John Tsang, who held a wide lead in public opinion polls and was largely backed by the pro-democracy camp. Still, the system was the closest thing to a public vote for an executive post in China.

3. What’s different now?

The Election Committee was expanded last year and given new vetting powers to ensure only “patriots” who “respect” Communist Party rule can run for office. 

• More than one-third of the now-1,500 members will be handpicked by pro-Beijing groups. Directly elected district councilors have been dropped entirely, and in the professional sectors there will be more corporate voting, slashing the number of individuals who cast a ballot. (Critics say law firms are far more likely than individual lawyers, for example, to vote in line with China, where companies have business interests.)

• Steps also were taken to curb the influence of the city’s property tycoons, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper.

• The city’s Legislative Council, or LegCo, was expanded to 90 members from 70, while the number who are directly elected was reduced to 20 from 35. The Election Committee itself selects 40.

4. Why did Beijing make the changes?

Violent anti-government protests rocked Hong Kong in 2019, with Lam’s government seemingly losing control at times. In November that year, pro-democracy politicians won a landslide victory in district council elections -- a surprising outcome that delivered a clear message about public sentiment. The opposition was expected to build on that result in the LegCo elections, with the stated aim of using the Basic Law to unseat Lam. National People’s Congress spokesman Zhang Yesui said all that “showed that the electoral system needs to be improved” to ensure only “patriots govern.”  

5. Did anyone protest? 

Coronavirus restrictions and a national security law that bans subversion and secession have effectively put a halt to public marches and protests. With most of the city’s formal opposition in jail, in self-imposed exile or out of office, there are few public figures left to challenge the government or China. The LegCo elections, initially set for Sept. 6, 2020, were postponed until Dec. 19, 2021, ostensibly due to the pandemic. The remaining pro-democracy camp boycotted or was banned from the race; voter turnout was only 30%, the lowest ever. The U.S., U.K. and European Union have accused China of betraying the handover agreement and sanctioned some individuals. 

6. Who is John Lee?

The city’s former Chief Secretary, the second-highest ranked government official. He was Beijing’s sole choice to run, local media including the South China Morning Post have reported. A staunch supporter of the China-extradition bill that sparked the protests in Hong Kong, he was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020 for his previous role as Security Secretary in curtailing political freedoms in the city. (YouTube shut down his campaign channel in April, citing the sanctions.) He said he joined the chief executive race out of loyalty to China, love for the city and a sense of responsibility to its people. The post has been seen as a poisoned chalice: with its occupant forced to balance the desires of the public with demands from Beijing -- leaving neither side pleased. That’s likely to remain so. In outlining his policy plans, he vowed to repair Hong Kong’s standing as a global financial hub, while still meeting China’s demands on security and a cautious approach toward Covid-19. 

7. Did Hong Kong ever have democracy?

No, and that’s the way China wanted it. When the U.K. toyed with introducing democracy to its colony in the 1950s, then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai warned that doing so would be considered an “unfriendly act.” For 40 years, the colonial government held off, but in the 1990s, they steam-rolled through some democratic reforms before handing the city back to China on July 1, 1997. Chiefly, they implemented direct elections for half the then-60 seats in the LegCo. Even that incensed China. Lu Ping, a senior Chinese official then in charge of Hong Kong affairs, called outgoing governor Chris Patten “a man to be condemned through the history of Hong Kong” over the matter.

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