The Next Hong Kong Chief: People's Choice or Beijing's?

As the presidential contest heats up in the United States, another race for chief executive is shaping up in Hong Kong, too.

It will be decided in November, and as so often happens, there will be a transition - albeit a somewhat longer one than in the US. Not until July 1 will the new chief replace Christopher Patten, the last British colonial governor of the territory.

As in the US, there is a front-runner, though not necessarily the one favored by most of the people. There are several dark horses and even a purported "dream team." But there the similarities between the two elections end. Indeed it may be too much to call Hong Kong's exercise an "election."

To vote, a Hong Kong resident must first become a candidate himself by going to a downtown office and picking up a green formed titled "Application for candidate for membership of the Selection Committee for the First Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."

Anyone over the age of 18 and a permanent resident can apply so long as he or she supports the principle of "one country, two systems." Under that formula, agreed to by China and Britain in 1984, Hong Kong will be governed after 1997 by its territorial constitution, the Basic Law.

The odds against getting appointed to this committee, however, are long. By the time registration for candidacy closed Sept. 14, a total of 5,800 people registered for nomination to the 400-member selection committee, which will choose the region's first chief executive about a month later.

They must first be vetted by a special panel of the Beijing-appointed Preparatory Committee and chosen from various interest groups: business, labor, the professions, religions, and social services. Some seats are reserved for "political figures," though not legislators elected under British rule. Those seats are for people who have served in China's institutions such as the National People's Congress.

The Democratic Party, which swept most of the directly elected seats for Hong Kong's territorial legislature in 1995, has declined to seek appointments, despite being specifically invited to participate by China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. Besides choosing the chief executive, the committee members will also choose a 60-member Provisional Legislature, which will replace the current elected one. The Democrats maintain that body is illegal.

People's choice

If the race were really decided in a direct election, there is little doubt who would win. Opinion polls consistently show that Anson Chan is the person most favored for the post. She holds the No. 2 position in the Hong Kong government as chief secretary and deputy governor. An ethnic Chinese, Mrs. Chan is seen by many as a kind of "bridge" between the outgoing colonial regime and the incoming local one. And as head of the 180,000-person civil service, she thoroughly understands how the government works.

Beijing has been willing to deal with Chan, but not Mr. Patten, due to his democratic reforms. But some think she may have compromised her chances by her loyalty to the governor and the feeling that she is too "Western."

The generally acknowledged front-runner, therefore, is a shipping tycoon, C.H. Tung, though how he emerged to become the leader is something of a mystery. After not declaring his interest in the job for a while, about three weeks ago, Tung did publicly declare that he was "considering" running for the position.

The press began speculating about Mr. Tung eight months ago, after an intense bout of speculation over Chan's "candidacy" (she has never declared, either) prompted a remark from Beijing's head of Hong Kong affairs, Lu Ping, to the effect that the real choice might be somebody else.

It is now suggested that the grooming process began two years ago when Tung was appointed to Governor Patten's "cabinet," known as the Executive Council (Exco), as one of the first pro-Beijing figures to serve on the body.

His recent resignation from the Exco is seen as an unambiguous sign that he now wants to put some distance between himself and the British establishment in preparation for assuming the post. Some even speak of him serving together with Chan in her present top post as a kind of "dream team."

Is it a real race?

One of the most interesting and unanswerable questions is whether there is a real, if restricted, race or whether everything has already been decided through secret deals with the British or in the closed councils of Beijing.

Certainly the press speculates endlessly on who is on China's "short list" or who is favored by this Chinese magnate or that one. Much has been made of Tung's supposed affinity with Chinese President Jiang Zemin because they both come originally from Shanghai and converse in the native dialect.

Undecided Chinese

Yet there is strong evidence that the Chinese have not settled on their own candidates. While they might not allow Hong Kong total autonomy in the matter (technically, the selection committee recommends a candidate for Beijing's formal appointment), they might allow people to choose among several "acceptable" candidates.

"None of the Chinese officials have told anyone on the Preparatory Committee that they prefer Mr. Tung," says local political consultant Andy Ho. He adds that a significant minority has strong reservations about placing a rich businessman in the job. "The other tycoons worry that they might end up competing with the future governor," he said.

The clearest evidence yet that the race is not cut and dried was the recent declaration by Sir Ti Liang Yang, chief justice of the Supreme Court, that he was a candidate. His name had been floated some months ago, but seemed to fade as speculation moved away from civil servants to tycoons. He appears sufficiently committed to the race that he recently resigned as chief justice.

In addition to Mr. Yang, one other candidate has publicly expressed an interest in the position. Lawyer and publisher T. S. Lo is not widely popular in Hong Kong, but he is said to have sound backing from rural interests in Hong Kong's New Territories. He might have enough support on the committee to complicate things for the other candidates. And last week another tycoon, Peter Woo, announced his candidacy, bringing to five the number of serious contenders.

The Chinese would probably prefer that the selection of Hong Kong's first chief executive proceed along the lines of a US presidential nomination convention. The 400 delegates would go to Beijing, ratify the agreed choice, and enjoy a nice banquet in the Great Hall of the People.

At the moment however, the process of selection is beginning to look more like a brokered convention. Democracy, it seems, can get messy, even when it is restricted.

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