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Little choice in HK as China steers leadership race

Two-and-a-half years ago, Nathan Law took to the streets of Hong Kong with tens of thousands of fellow students, demanding Beijing give them the right to vote for the leader of their own city government.

This Sunday Mr Law will have that opportunity — but not in the way he envisaged during the “Umbrella Revolution” protests.

When he was voted on to the city’s Legislative Council in September, the 23-year-old automatically became a member of the 1,194-person committee that will choose Hong Kong’s next chief executive, at a time of deep uncertainty for the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. But he did not give up his fight for democracy.

“I am boycotting the election,” says Mr Law, the youngest person ever elected to the council. “It is pretty much controlled by the Beijing government and I don’t want to give credibility to an undemocratic system.”

The choice of chief executive is the latest pressure point facing a city that has become ever more polarised since the failure of the 2014 demonstrations to secure full democracy from Beijing.

“A lot of people, particularly young people, don’t feel that the government is working according to their interests,” says John Tsang, the former finance secretary and the most popular with the general public of the three candidates running for chief executive. “We need to rebuild so we can regenerate some hope in the community.”

Amid growing anger towards Beijing and outgoing chief executive CY Leung, the Chinese government has stepped up its intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs, prompting a further backlash and the emergence of an independence movement that has caused consternation in Beijing.

Carrie Lam, right, who has the backing of nearly 600 loyalists on the election committee, with rival John Tsang © AP

Hong Kong’s next leader will have to navigate between a population that fears losing its unique identity and freedoms and a Chinese government that is frustrated with what it sees as a city held back by a hard core of troublemakers.

But he or she will arrive in office hamstrung by a selection process that is ultimately controlled by Beijing.

The frontrunner is Carrie Lam, a career civil servant and the former number two in Mr Leung’s government who has the backing of nearly 600 Beijing loyalists on the election committee.

Whoever wins more than 600 votes in Sunday’s secret ballot will be elected, with a further round of voting between the top two candidates if no one secures more than that. Nearly 900 of the 1,194 electors are Beijing loyalists from Hong Kong’s political establishment, business lobby groups and social organisations.

Politicians say representatives of the Chinese government have been lobbying the electors behind the scenes to support Ms Lam, although Beijing has said nothing publicly. If it fails to get its way, Beijing has the power to reject the candidate proposed by the committee.

Despite his public support, Mr Tsang describes himself as an “outsider” because of the level of establishment backing for Ms Lam.

I am boycotting the election. It is pretty much controlled by the Beijing government and I don’t want to give credibility to an undemocratic system

A poll sponsored by the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English-language newspaper, found that Mr Tsang was backed by 47 per cent of the wider population, compared with 30 per cent for Ms Lam and 10 per cent for Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge.

But two-thirds of those surveyed said Ms Lam had the best chance of winning.

A western diplomat who knows Ms Lam describes her as a “steely administrator who wants to do the right thing for Hong Kong” but says she has been taken aback by the public anger at her close relationship with Beijing.

Lam Cheuk-ting, a pro-democracy member of the Legislative Council and a supporter of Mr Tsang, calls Ms Lam “a hardliner who is not a good listener, especially when someone criticises her”.

Her decision in December to build a $450m Beijing-backed museum without public consultation sparked a bitter backlash.

Ms Lam has since undermined her campaign with a series of gaffes that have shown her as aloof. At a photo-call on the metro system, she did not know how to use a travel card to get past the entry gate. She later admitted publicly that after living for years in a government residence, she did not know where to buy toilet paper.

Ms Lam has acknowledged that “divided opinions in our society now are holding us back” but her pledges to reunite the city have convinced few Hong Kongers.

Mr Law, one of four pro-democracy legislators the government is trying to remove from the council with a legal challenge, faced off against Ms Lam when she held talks with the student leaders during the Umbrella Revolution.

He is gloomy about the prospects for her leadership, arguing that only full democracy can provide future chief executives with the popular mandate they need to govern effectively.

“Polarisation and political suppression will continue just as under CY Leung,” he says.

Via FT