So finally the resignations of previous Financial Secretary John Tsang and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam have been approved by Beijing, clearing their way to announce their candidacy for the the Chief Executive “elections” to take place 69 days later. Lam has in fact already done so – she actually made clear her intentions when she resigned on 12 January, citing express instructions from God Himself. This of course sparked a cascade of memes questioning whether God, presumably rather busy most of the time dealing with requests and prayers from all around the world, would specifically speak to one Carrie Lam to tell her to run for the Top Dog post. Speculations were rampant as to whether “God” was actually Beijing (which is a pretty persuasive reading, but also rather stupid as a metaphor if used deliberately, because it really isn’t very opaque at all – and maybe a little too fawning to compare Beijing (or whatever faction is egging Lam on) to the omnipotent…though of course the flattery may work well on someone other than this cynical writer). Another flash in the pan centered on Tsang’s rather masterful jibe about God’s will: when interviewed about Lam’s remark, he quipped (apparently “off-topic”) that the Bible often required the Chosen One(s) to walk arduous paths – and further commented that he had been on an arduous path for the past 20-plus years i.e. suggesting that he (too) was a Chosen One.
Of course, it could very well be true that Lam did feel “inspired” to run – having been educated in a religious school for 12+ years has taught me that religion often has the effect of compounding confirmation biases. She could very well have prayed for guidance: but my experience with praying suggests that the way you mumble to yourself either aloud or silently illuminates precisely your heart’s desire – and coming to terms with what you really want to do (or what you feel compelled to do) can be understood as either understanding yourself, or “God talking to you”. It’s entirely possible that the still voice you hear, and which is referenced in countless hymns and prayers, is just your own conscience (and whether consciences are God’s voice is definitely something for another day). But this tangent aside, and despite Tsang not having formally announced his candidacy, it’s pretty clear that the 2017 CE “Elections” will be a four-way fight with Tsang, Lam, Regina Ip and ex-judge Woo Kwok-Hing. Here are 3 preliminary thoughts before the race really gets going.
“Elections” require the quotation marks because this is not an election.
The problem that I’ve been grappling with since the disastrous Trump victory (and yes, I am personally still quite devastated about it despite not being connected to the USA in any way, and yes, I acknowledge that Clinton had massive flaws – but it apparently is not unusual to feel a very personal sense of loss, even when the elections didn’t affect you directly) is whether it’s worse to have elections, and democratically (to the extent that the electoral collage is democratic, anyway) elect a pretty bad leader like Trump, or to not have elections at all. The latter could produce reasonably not-horrible leaders – Lee Kuan Yew being my prime example; from Hong Kong, one could arguably say that Tung Chee-hwa or even the previous governors from the colonial days were passable in terms of (i) popularity / approval ratings – see CY Leung’s abysmal numbers in comparison; and (ii) general “did not fuck things up too badly” – see CY Leung’s heavy-handed crackdown on the Occupy Movement and JR-ing legislative councillors, which are both “bad things” in my books.
Obviously it’s disheartening that a very large proportion of people (though not the majority, in raw numbers) could vote for a sexist, racist, fear-mongering buffoon – but there is some solace in the fact that (i) in 4 years’ time, people could come to their senses and vote Trump out of office; (ii) democracy could be a good in and of itself, regardless of the end result. In contrast, the HK system yielding CEs is nowhere near democracy. There is literally nothing representative about 1200 people (most of whose names or occupations or general relevance you will never know) coming together to cast a ballot for someone – and before these 1200 people “vote”, a majority of these 1200 people will have received instructions about a pre-ordained individual to vote for so there isn’t even “democracy” for these 1200 electors. Actually even before the Choice regarding which candidate to vote for, it’s generally assumed that getting through the first hurdle to become a candidate requires Approval from Above i.e. 300 votes are needed to nominate a citizen to become a CE candidate, so if you are so unpopular with the 1200 electors (or Beijing hates you so much it directs its proxies to not support you) that you don’t even have 300 friends in the inner circle, you don’t even get a foot in the door. So evidently this system is not an election in any sense of the word, and it is just wrong to call it a “CE Election”. It is a CE “race”.
It is also wrong to suggest that Tsang taking selfies, or writing blog posts about where he gets his haircut in order to manipulate his optics, is “electioneering” – granted, I find it refreshing to an extent that he tries to be nice and appeal to the masses, but this is not electioneering in the sense of trying to get support / votes. Whether or not the populace supports him really has no bearing on whether he is “elected” as CE. It makes no difference to Beijing – except with respect to the caveat below; it really doesn’t make a very big difference to even the pan-democratic camp’s electors, to be honest – there’s been no concrete suggestion or plan that they fall in line and vote based on popular support, although there are some ideas brewing.
Caveat: maybe Beijing is trying a different approach
It’s been suggested though that the very fact that CY was not allowed to run for re-election – and evidence of his “electioneering” mere days before he announced “family reasons” for not running support the argument that the decision was one imposed on him by someone, even if we don’t know who exactly, or how, or why. Of course, it could also be CY himself feeling an invisible pressure from above (maybe the same God who spoke to Lam – which suggests God is rather partial to dabbling in Hong Kong politics for some unknown reason) to not run, instead of Xi Jinping and his lackeys instructing him directly. But either way, either Beijing’s express direction to course-correct or its failure to convince CY to do a second term suggests that it must not like CY being Top Dog very much. If they were convinced that he was doing an excellent job, if it aint’ broke, don’t fix it – right?
Therefore it could be plausible that Beijing is keen to try something other than CY’s heavy-handed approach in combating whiffs of “Hong Kong independence” and general anti-China sentiment (e.g. with rambling, incoherent blogposts about – I’m not sure about this because it’s just a mess – his patriotism and love for the Chinese flag). More significantly, a key reason why he’s so unpopular seems to be his absolute disinterest in how he is perceived, or the ramifications of his actions, or his optics. He’s just not very good at handling his public relations, it seems to me; maybe he’s given up, or maybe he doesn’t care – but either way, he just doesn’t have the quick wits of John Tsang laughing off being egged, which is potentially a great asset for the Chinese government if they want to start using the carrot instead of the stick. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hong Kong would be fucked over a lot harder once the carrot was in place: put in place an affable, soft-round-the-edges politician who’s able to play the crowd, and a much larger majority of Hong Kong people would probably decide things aren’t that bad and therefore start withdrawing from this constant state of hostility against the government – which would be a good foundation for whatever policy or plan Beijing wants to unroll.
And if that were the case, the question would boil down to how different you want the next CE to be. Lam, after the whole Palace museum fiasco, seems to be much more similar to CY at least in terms of her ability to ignore public backlash in achieving her goals. Then again, Tsang hasn’t had to deal with this much backlash (yet); he has generally not had similar tasks (or goals – again, one can’t be sure whether Lam was genuinely really passionate about Chinese history and increasing cultural awareness, or whether she was told to implement Plan X and just went along) which he had to push through despite massive opposition or unfavorability. It’s quite possible too that the Lam vs. Tsang debate is fuelled by some behind-the-scenes showdown between rival factions in the Beijing government, in which case it’s futile to rationally analyze any changes in Beijing’s approach to governing Hong Kong because everything’s actually about petty politics. It’s just so murky, and the fact that candidates aren’t going to have to put forward policies (in the sense that a generic candidate in a country with real elections do – or should; I’m aware that Trump had none and got elected) makes it very disheartening. This is not about change of power or even about governance; it is literally a changed figurehead, although potentially it could be a change for “the better” in the sense of people not having to spend so much energy hating the Chief Executive.
And then there’s Regina (and Judge Woo – but I mean, honestly: I genuinely do not understand what he’s doing, given that he is not a politician and is not even an agreed-upon “representative” of the pan-democratic camp like, say, Alan Leong was in 2005 or Albert Ho in 2012): one cannot help but think that she makes a great character in some soppy novel, since she is just so bitter and so spurned that everything about her is just really unpleasant. Arguably she comes off as even more unlikable than CY, which is really quite a feat in today’s Hong Kong. The question really is why she wants to run now, in 2017, when it’s clear that there are much likelier candidates who have more evident support from Beijing (which is definitely a prerequisite to success). If she is a smart woman – and I have no doubt that she can’t be that stupid – why is she gambling it all away now, when she could bide her time and wait for a more favorable year, while cultivating her relationships with Beijing and/or local interests in the meantime (as LegCo president, for instance – seriously, Zhang Xiaoming told her to settle for the Legco presidency, which is really the most obvious way to say “please don’t run for CE” it gets…and she reads this as a go-ahead because he didn’t tell her not to run – I might have to take back the “smart” bit because after further thought she might be really thick)? Unless, of course, one thinks there is some grand conspiracy theory where Regina is actually the ultimate Chosen One, and Tsang and Lam are actually major red herrings.
I really don’t understand how these people think.