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Hong Kong’s institutions in an electoral year: the coming end of “One Country, Two Systems”?

 by Sebastian Veg


As history has shown in many different contexts, democracy is rarely instituted overnight by divine or popular fiat. When Hong Kong’s Basic Law was hammered out in negotiations leading up to the handover, it was clear to many pan-democrats that the road ahead to democracy was still long. The past months, from C. Y. Leung’s controversial election as Chief Executive on March 25 to the recent LegCo elections, mark a new development in the ongoing battle over the nature of democratic institutions in Hong Kong.

The CE election marked a low point in Hongkongers’ trust in their institutions, in particular in “One country, two systems.” Henry Tang was widely viewed as the favorite until just weeks before the election when, in the face of rising scandals, Beijing’s representatives suddenly switched their support to C. Y. Leung, a move announced in a secret meeting held in Shenzhen between Liu Yandong, in her capacity as previous head of the United Front Department, and an assorted group of tycoons and pro-Beijing politicians. Although no one wept any tears over Henry Tang, widely unpopular and seen as an inept politician born with a silver spoon in his mouth, many Hongkongers felt extremely uneasy about C. Y. Leung (nicknamed Si-wai 思歪), whose popularity ratings plunged overnight. Although he campaigned on a pro-labor agenda, he is seen less as a patriot than an opportunist, the son of a colonial policeman who studied in Britain and only became interested in China when there was money to make there. The “pro-establishment camp” was deeply split over his candidacy: Li Ka-shing and other tycoons’ adamantly refused to endorse him. As the campaign unfolded, Henry Tang leaked telltale tidbits, suggesting CY had favored a police crackdown against the Article 23 protests in 2003. A book published just before the election by one Florence Leung Mo-han 梁慕嫻 titled My Time in Hong Kong's Underground Communist Party 我與香港地下黨 asserted that Leung was a Party member, triggering the comment that after “businessmen ruling Hong Kong” (shang ren zhi Gang) and “civil servants ruling Hong Kong” (guan ren zhi Gang) it was now the turn of CCP members (dang ren zhi Gang). Willy Lam slyly pointed out that adding up the three figures of the number of votes earned by CY (689), the total obtained would be 23.

While “One Country Two Systems” has been under fire ever since its inception, and even more since 2003, this election undermined several of its main tenets, in at least three ways. Firstly, the office of Chief Executive is discredited. CY Leung took up office with the lowest popularity ratings ever obtained by an incoming CE. He had attacked Henry Tang over illegal structures in his house, which Tang lamely blamed on his wife (perhaps he saw it as her revenge for his legendary philandering), initiating his downslide in opinion polls and ultimately Beijing’s withdrawal of support; Mingpao revealed shortly before the inauguration on July 1st that Leung’s solemn oath during the campaign that he could guarantee his house on the Peak had no illegal structures was simply a lie. His Development Secretary, Mak Chai-Kwong was forced to resign after 12 days in office and arrested by the ICAC for an illegal cross-leasing scheme. He was succeeded by Paul Chan Mo-bo, who was in turn accused of renting illegally subdivided flats, which he also blamed on his wife, refusing to resign. Several triad members known by the colorful nicknames of “Shanghai Boy” Kwok Wing-hung and "Little Boy" Cheung Chuen-hon were arrested in early August amongst rumours that they were involved in CY Leung’s election campaign. Unsurprisingly, the annual July 1st demonstration drew record numbers, marching to shouts of “Beware of the Wolf” and “Ngak yan 呃人” (“Liar”). Worse yet, the controversy surrounding the end of Donald Tsang’s mandate (collusion with tycoons, illegal advantages, exorbitant public expenses during foreign visits) have deeply undermined the credibility of the CE’s position, supposed to be incorruptible and above party politics.

Secondly, the attitude of Hong Kong voters remains ambiguous. Albert Ho, the Democratic Party candidate, never outranked either of his two rivals in any opinion poll: as the LegCo elections showed, Ho’s persistent unpopularity seems linked to the political reform package of 2010. CY Leung strategically positioned himself as a populist in opposition to Henry Tang’s elitist pro-business stance so that, although neither of the two pro-establishment candidates had an official party affiliation, their positions quite neatly tallied with those of the Liberal Party and the DAB. Henry Tang’s last minute pro-democracy pronouncements, and the call by a handful of pan-democrats like Albert Cheng or Anson Chan to vote for Tang to preserve Hong Kong’s democratic achievements foreshadowed the Liberal Party’s anti-Leung LegCo campaign in September and a possible restructuring of political forces, with the pro-business camp possibly willing to side with pan-democrats on institutional issues. In this sense, the CE election, contrary to the absurd proviso of a non-partisan Chief Executive also impulsed the “politicization” of Hong Kong politics. Beijing’s last minute U-turn in favor of the candidate with the highest poll ratings (the criterion of “public acceptability” or 可接受性) does also, on some level, demonstrate Beijing’s willingness to join the political fray (provided it controls the rules), via the DAB and its populist program aimed at a large fringe of loyal grassroots-Cantonese/trade union voters who consistently favor pro-Beijing parties.

Thirdly, this politicization of the CE election is directly threatened by the growing implication of the Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong politics. Much ink was spilt over CY Leung’s post-haste visit to the CLO for a 1-hour discussion following his election; once again, it seemed that Beijing – both via Liu Yandong and vote-allocation by the CLO (now jestingly renamed the 中亂板 in Cantonese) – had directly entered the Hong Kong elections, in evident breach of the Basic Law. CY’s inauguration speech on July 1st, entirely in Mandarin (Donald Tsang spoke Cantonese), facing a wooden Hu Jintao (Hu did not bat an eyelid when a member of the CE election committee shouted a question about the rehabilitation of June 4th, just as he has done the day before when challenged by journalist Rex Hon Yiu-ting), only exacerbated the widely shared feeling that CY was simply executing orders for Beijing. The mock poll organized first online by Robert Chung’s HK Public Opinion Project, and then in real ballot boxes when hackers interfered, mobilized 222,990 people over two days. There was food for thought in the results, as CY came out first with 17.8% of the vote (and Albert Ho dead last); however the undisputed winner were the blank ballots, with 54%. While this poll no doubt represents a death sentence for the bankrupt “small-circle” election system, CY’s good performance is encouraging for those pro-Beijing strategists who think that he could carry a majority of the popular vote in a reelection by universal suffrage in 2017. However, on the other hand Robert Chung’s poll may also make Beijing very careful: if indeed universal suffrage is permitted with a careful vetting of candidates, and produces a similar result, and the vetting of candidates entails a majority of blank votes, Hong Kong may well become ungovernable.

Following closely on the heels of the CE inauguration came the September 8th LegCo elections. Galvanized by the National Education protests and a high turnout rate, the Democrats seemed poised to make up for the losses of 2008. But, while their split-list strategy had worked wonders in damage control in the last election, they were this time out-maneuvered by the strongly disciplined pro-Beijing camp, which was able to allocate votes (pui piu 配票) to perfection. Suzanne Pepper, on her blog, writes that the DAB even made a conscious decision to sacrifice Lau Kung-wah and ensure Starry Lee’s election for a super-seat: “That left the two DAB candidates, Starry Lee Wai-king and Lau Kong-wah running more or less neck-and neck … until the calls and messages reportedly went out, late-in-the-day, to sacrifice Lau for Lee. She won: 277,143 to Lau’s 199,732, and she benefited from an unexplained surge of votes even in his New Territories base where pre-Election Day publicity recommended that voters opt for him (Wen Wei Po, Sept. 8).” Nonetheless, the democrats were able to safeguard the important strategic locks like the 1/3 blockage minority for political reform (24 seats out of 70; they won 27) and the majority of GC seats (18 out of 35), as well as a majority (3) of the 5 super-seats. They also picked up some additional FC seats. The Civic Party was much criticized for its single-list strategy, but it succeeded in getting a candidate elected in every GC (like the DAB) and became the second party by popular vote, far ahead of the DP. It was also able to get young politicians into LegCo. All in all, while commentators have highlighted the radicalization of HK politics, and although the Civic Party ran on the slogan “against red-ization” (反對赤化), it seems more exact to refer to this phenomenon as a normal bipolarization of politics.

The old DP was the most obvious victim, prompting Albert Ho’s immediate resignation: with an ageing group of politicians, the Party proved unable to explain the reasons for its compromise on political reform in 2010. While, at the time, and with Szeto Wah’s blessing (Martin Lee was far more skeptical), the DP sat down with the CLO to hammer out a way forward to the deadlocked political reform (see also Yew Chiew Ping’s analysis on political reform), voters, perhaps under the sway of People’s Power, only saw two things: the preservation of FC’s in a system of “one man, two votes”, and the breach of the Basic Law when the democrats negotiated directly with the CLO. Parties that are moderate but refused this compromise, like the CP, Labor or the Neo-democrats, did well and represent a majority of pan-dem seats in the new LegCo.

Voters therefore endorsed the principled position of parties hostile to the FCs, even at the price of blocking political reform. At the other end of the spectrum, the pro-Beijing parties, even split as they were this time between pro-labor/pro-Leung on one side and pro-business on the other, continue to reap the benefits from their extremely powerful local base in the District Councils (all 18 are now controlled by pro-Beijing forces), which allows them to continuously increase their share of the vote at each election. Hence, forces on both sides of the political spectrum seem bent on further undermining the already much-maligned One Country Two Systems principle, on the one side because it is incapable of delivering true democratic reform, on the other side because it can be used to further the cause of “One Country One System” through the elections themselves. The capacity of the Basic Law framework to resist these centrifugal tensions will no doubt be severely tested under CY Leung’s mandate.


7 October 2012


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