HONG KONG — As he hailed passers-by on a busy street here Tuesday, shaking hands and smiling while volunteers gave out leaflets, Alan Leong looked just as though he was campaigning in a real election.
In fact, none of the people listening to Mr. Leong have a vote, and the candidate doesn't stand a chance of implementing any of the policies he advocates. Leong is running for Hong Kong's Chief Executive, and he knows he is bound to lose Sunday's election because the 796 worthies allowed to vote in it overwhelmingly support the Beijing-backed incumbent, Donald Tsang.
But his presence on the Causeway Bay pedestrian precinct last Tuesday was historic nonetheless, Leong insisted. For the first time ever, a candidate without Beijing's blessing is contesting Hong Kong's top job. That, he hopes, will put fresh wind in the sails of democracy activists who have made little headway in recent years.
"We don't hope to win this rigged election," he said in an interview between bouts of pressing the flesh. "But we do hope we are paving the way to win a free election next time."
By taking part in the third Chief Executive election since China regained sovereignty over the former British colony 10 years ago, Leong has made Hong Kong's lack of democracy the central campaign issue, forcing Mr. Tsang to promise remedies. Skeptics doubt, though, that he will be able to easily win Beijing's approval for any quick moves to universal suffrage, given the Communist Party's fears that such ideas might spread throughout the mainland.
Leong is scarcely the kind of man to take to the barricades at the head of an "Orange Revolution"-style push for democracy. A well-heeled lawyer with a taste for matching pink silk ties and pocket handkerchiefs, he has no quarrel with the Hong Kong constitution's stipulation that progress toward democracy must be "gradual and orderly."
Nor is Tsang anything like a typical Chinese communist apparatchik, despite having been handpicked by Beijing to lead Hong Kong. A devout Roman Catholic, he was made a Knight of the British Empire for his services to the Crown as a colonial civil servant. As Beijing's anointed candidate, he cannot fail to win when the 796 delegates, mostly selected by corporatist vested interests, vote on Sunday.
For that very reason, some well-known pro-democracy leaders have refused to back Leong's quixotic venture into top-level politics. "The whole thing is a farce," snorts Emily Lau, a veteran legislator from the Frontier Party. "It is not an election. It is not for real, and it should not be treated as if it is for real."
Other democratic activists, however, say Leong's doomed campaign has served a larger purpose by obliging the chief executive, for the first time, to defend his policies in public and to answer unrehearsed questions from ordinary citizens in two televised debates, watched by 2 million people, that have proved to be the highlights of the campaign.
"These elections have not changed the system, but they have changed peoples' expectations of the people in power," argues Christine Loh, head of a local think tank called Civic Exchange. "They have created a new political culture, and Alan Leong has done a great service to all of us."
The debates, in which the candidates took questions from reporters, politicians, and members of the public, "kindled a lot of interest in the community," says George Cautherley, a member of Leong's campaign team. Shopping malls broadcast the debates on giant screens and nearly two million of Hong Kong's seven million residents tuned in.
"In Chinese history we have never seen the sitting leader of such a high entity being questioned by the public and challenged by an opponent in front of the media," says Michael DeGolyer, who teaches politics at the Baptist University of Hong Kong.
It was during the second debate, facing Leong's demand for universal suffrage when the next chief executive elections are held in 2012, that Tsang pledged to "thoroughly resolve the problem of direct elections in five years." Hong Kong's Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, set direct elections through universal suffrage as an "ultimate aim" but set no timetable.
"More people are asking themselves why they are deprived of the vote," says Leong. "There's an awakening, and this will provide new impetus to the democratic movement in Hong Kong."
Whether the democrats will be able to capitalize on this, says Chris Yeung, political columnist with the South China Morning Post, is unclear. "It depends on whether there is universal suffrage in 2012 ... and it depends on the democratic opposition making significant progress toward being more mature and well organized," he says. "There are big question marks from both these perspectives."
There are also doubts about how much success the democrats can enjoy while Hong Kong's powerful business community turns its back on them. Not one of the 132 nominations that Leong received from members of the electoral committee came from a member of the business sector.
"Businesspeople ask who can do better for them," says Ma Lik, Chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong. "They choose the candidate who can benefit them, who can win."
That pragmatism, argues Mr. Cautherley, also explains why Leong has never attracted more than 21 percent support in public opinion polls during the campaign, compared to scores of over 60 percent for his opponent.
"The people know who is going to win so they say they would vote for Donald Tsang," Cautherley says. "They realize too that Alan has no background in how to govern. But next time around, if there is universal suffrage, he could be quite a formidable opponent."