Donald Tsang campaigned for months for the No. 1 post in China's most sophisticated and wealthy city. He hired top-shelf media managers. He sported a jaunty bowtie as his emblem. Sir Donald asked not to be called "Sir," a legacy of his British knighthood. He chatted with fishermen and truckers.
He was always the front-runner to serve out the term of shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa, fired by Beijing, whose unpopularity brought millions to the streets, seeking the right to vote for their leader.
Yet in the curious twists and turns that Hong Kong is heir to since the British handover, Mr. Tsang is now the new chief executive without any election at all, pending a stamp of approval in Beijing that could come as early as this week.
No opposition candidates got approved. None got the requisite 100 nominations out of an elections panel of 800 pro-Beijing loyalists.
For grassroots reformers who desire ordinary democracy, the elevation of Tsang has left some smiles and many groans. Tsang, a devout Catholic and former chief aid to British governor Chris Patten, is a known quantity; he likely would have won in a real race. Yet the non-race and nonelection by which the Tsang "victory" came has caused democrats to cry "farce," in what Philip Bowring, former editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review, terms "our fantasy democracy."
Lee Wing-tat and Chim Pui-chung, the two announced challengers, could not get Tsang to show up for any debates. Instead they debated each other next to an empty microphone where a three-foot wide green and red bowtie stood in for Tsang. Tsang asserted that he wanted to win without an election so as to save Mr. Lee from the embarrassment of losing.
"The entire process shows that Beijing is in control," says Margaret Ng, the Hong Kong member of parliament for the legal profession. "It can't be said to be a fair competition when, if you don't have Beijing's support, you don't get to compete."
In fact, having secured the nominations of the panel of 800, Hong Kong authorities left nothing to chance. The 800 members never actually voted.
Rather, Tsang was approved on the strength of their nominations alone. He will fill out Tung's remaining two years, and is expected to run again in 2007.
By not submitting to debates or to a general political race, Tsang achieved high office without ever quite defining any issues, critics point out. The choice of Tsang is a clear shift from years of rule by business elites, and over to the thickly staffed civil servants. Certainly, Tsang will opt for pro-business policies. "I believe in small government and a big market," he has said in interviews.
Unlike Shanghai-bred Tung, Tsang is a local guy. As Tsang says, "I drink Hong Kong water."
Yet where Tsang stands on the major political questions facing Hong Kong, including how it may assert itself and be distinct from mainland China, is unknown. Democrats feel Tsang will have to dance so closely with Beijing that it will be impossible for him to be his own man, and to stand up for the agreed upon "one country, two systems" formula enshrined in Hong Kong's Basic Law.
The lack of direct democracy, one-person one-vote, has been a sore point in the city for several years, for example. Tsang has argued obliquely on both sides of the question. He has said that some authorities in Beijing might be open to universal suffrage in Hong Kong, especially if it would speed up unification with Taiwan.
Yet minutes later he told reporters: "We have to take a little bit of time to arrive at universal suffrage. It took America several hundred years ... and some people believe there should be a different form."
That final comment runs close to statements at a Party plenum in Beijing last September when President Hu Jintao said that Western-style democracy was inappropriate for China.
Tsang has, in fact, taken other tandem positions with Beijing on a number of highly sensitive questions. Regarding the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, he took a position similar to the Chinese foreign ministry, saying that after Tiananmen, China's economy developed rapidly.
Tsang refused to meet with Mary Lau, wife of journalist Ching Cheong, who was arrested in April and is being held in China on espionage charges.
Francis Moriarty, head of the press freedom committee of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, says it's also unclear where Tsang stands on the "Article 23" controversy. The article allows for enhanced police powers in cases defined as sensitive to Hong Kong security, and was sternly opposed by most of Hong Kong's legal community as a precursor to throttling free press, police search and seizures outside the court system, and for closing down religious organizations.
When Tung's government, with the strong backing of Beijing, tried to ram through Article 23 two years ago, more than half a million people hit the streets.
"We think the current laws are already too draconian and broad," says Mr. Moriarty. "Article 23 goes further than our current laws, and Donald Tsang has not taken a position on them."