BEIJING — An elite election committee composed of Beijing loyalists chose a new leader Sunday for the 7.3 million people of Hong Kong: Carrie Lam, who is expected to follow the central government’s instructions to the letter.
To become Hong Kong’s chief executive, Lam beat out John Tsang, a former finance secretary who enjoyed considerable popularity, according to opinion polls, and Woo Kwok-hing, a retired high court judge who never stood a chance. The three-person ticket was itself the product of tightly controlled, small-circle vetting.
“We have a qualified electorate of millions, but I don’t have a vote, and most other people don’t have a vote,” said Anson Chan, who once served as Hong Kong’s top civil servant.
Though a Chinese official said Sunday that Lam “had the support” of Hong Kong’s people, her victory over a popular opponent will almost certainly deepen fear about Beijing’s tightening grip on the Chinese special administrative region and compound frustration that the fight for universal suffrage has stalled.
“This is a selection, not an election,” said Joshua Wong, a former student leader who headed 2014 pro-democracy protests. “Carrie Lam will be a nightmare for us.”
This was the fifth such change in leadership in the 20 years since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 — and perhaps the most contentious.
Under a political compromise known as “one country, two systems,” the territory was promised a “high degree of autonomy,” including the right to elect its leader by 2017.
Many Hong Kong residents believe Beijing broke its word. Instead of getting more autonomous and democratic, critics say, Hong Kong is increasingly being strong-armed by Beijing.
“We have been waiting for 20 years now, and the electoral law is still not fair or democratic,” said Martin Lee, a veteran pro-democracy campaigner. “Beijing has tried to rule Hong Kong by controlling us.”
The promise of “one country, two systems” has always been an unhappy compromise, one that pits the People’s Republic of China’s intransigent Communist Party against Hong Kong’s scrappy pan-democratic camp.
With an electoral system stacked in favor of the central government, the pro-democratic movement has turned to mass protests, blocking an unpopular state security law in 2003 and, more recently, thwarting Beijing’s plans for “patriotic education” in Hong Kong.
In August 2014, Beijing issued a white paper on the territory’s future that many Hong Kong residents saw as a step too far. The 14,500-word document stressed that the central government has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory.
“The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power,” it read. “It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”
Student leaders such as Wong led tens of thousands into the streets, occupying the heart of the city, after the document was issued. When police fired pepper spray at the crowd, they used umbrellas to shield their faces — and what became known as the Umbrella Movement was born.
Months of protests did not secure concession from Beijing.
“In the original ‘one country, two systems,’ the message was, ‘Hong Kong people, put your hearts at ease,’ ” says Michael Davis, a former constitutional expert at Hong Kong University. “Since 2014, the message has been, ‘Beijing is the boss.’ ”
The central government’s hard-line stance continues to divide the city. In 2015, when Beijing put forward an election blueprint that would see the chief executive elected by popular vote — but from a list of vetted candidates — the pro-democratic camp decried the plan.
Frustration over electoral reform and other issues has fueled a small but vocal group of Hong Kong independence activists.
In November, Beijing intervened in a Hong Kong court case to block two politicians from taking seats in the city’s legislature. Both had pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation,” not the People’s Republic of China, while taking their oaths of office.
Though the reach of the independence movement remains limited, the incident served as “a useful pretext for Beijing to justify curtailing freedom of election and expression,” said Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There’s a real fear that Beijing will use the pretext of a separatist movement to crack down.”
Beijing is becoming bolder about interfering in Hong Kong affairs, experts said.
In January, a Chinese-born tycoon was wheeled out of a luxury Hong Kong hotel in a wheelchair; he then turned up in police custody across the border, in an incident that reminded many of the 2016 abduction and detention of five Hong Kong booksellers.
Carrie Lam’s win will do little to ease concern about Beijing’s influence.
“There is substantial apprehension that she will follow the overall policies of unpopular politics of [her predecessor] C.Y. Leung, who is seen as too loyal in carrying out Xi Jinping’s draconian measures,” said Willy Lam.
Veteran democracy activists stressed that it is not really about who won the chief executive race.
“Whoever is chief executive, the policy will continue, because at this point they just execute the policy of the central government — increase government control of political and social life, of the economy, and to promote integration between the mainland and Hong Kong,” said Ho-fung Hung, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University
“Unless Beijing’s policy changes for the better, changing the chief executive alone is not that useful,” said Lee, the democracy campaigner, “because if Beijing continues to dictate to them how to rule, there is no change.”
Luna Lin and Jin Xin in Beijing contributed to this report.