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Thousands protest pick for Hong Kong executive post

March 25, 2012 |  5:41 am

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REPORTING FROM BEIJING — Pro-Beijing candidate Leung Chun-ying was chosen by a Hong Kong election committee as the territory’s new chief executive Sunday as thousands protested outside the harbor-front election site to demand a more democratic voting process.

Hong Kong’s 7 million residents enjoy freedoms unknown to citizens of mainland China, but the territory’s highest official is elected by a committee of 1,193 tycoons and other local elites handpicked by Beijing.

Leung, who received 689 of 1,132 votes cast, carries a reputation of displaying strong loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and a tough stance on political protests. Public opinion polls and mock elections show that the Hong Kong public views him with distrust.

“The general public has never accepted that the election committee represents them,” said Christine Loh, director of the Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization Civic Exchange.

This is the third chief executive election since the British relinquished administrative control over Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997. The previous two were staid affairs with outcomes determined well in advance. In contrast, this election was preceded by months of mudslinging, uncertainty and scandal.

Henry Tang Ying-yen, the previous front-runner, spent months battling allegations of having an extramarital affair with a former administrative assistant and of building an illegal basement beneath his villa, a sensitive issue in one of the world’s most densely populated cities. His popularity continued to decline after he blamed the development on his wife.

Tang received 285 votes Sunday, while opposition candidate Albert Ho received 75. In June, Leung will replace Donald Tsang, Hong Kong’s chief executive since 2005. His term will last five years.

A total of 222,990 Hong Kong residents participated in a mock election on Saturday, four times more than organizers had expected. Over half the voters cast blank ballots, showing widespread disapproval of the three candidates.

“Hong Kong people are sort of indirectly getting involved,” said Loh. “And that actually emphasizes to us the ridiculousness of not actually being able to vote.”

The mock polls were organized by Robert Chung, director of the Public Opinion Program at Hong Kong University. The Communist Party of China’s “liaison offices” in Hong Kong criticized Chung in January after one of his polls found that Hong Kong people identify as less “Chinese” than at any point since the 1997 handover.

Sunday's elections were met by flocks of protesters, some of whom camped out overnight. “Cast blank ballots. Refuse to vote. We want universal suffrage,” they shouted, according to Reuters. Protesters clashed with police after the results were announced, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Leung has promised that he will keep Hong Kong on track to adopt universal suffrage by 2017, but some question whether anti-Beijing candidates will be allowed on the ballot.

Michael DeGolyer, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, explained that smear campaigns conducted by Tang and Leung before the election have damaged the reputations of both men, and by proxy, the legitimacy of Beijing’s role in Hong Kong politics.

“In certain ways an open direct election is probably more predictable and controllable, at least in terms of knowing ahead of time who you’re dealing with,” he said.

DeGolyer explained that Leung’s challenges will include presiding over a city that is deeply concerned about skyrocketing property prices, a growing wealth gap, and collusion between the city’s political and business elites.

Dominic Chan, a 20-year-old student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, acted as Leung in a two-day mock election hosted by a nonprofit organization in Hong Kong last weekend but found it difficult to stay in character. “As Leung, I couldn’t hold a view that was contradictory to Beijing’s views,” he said.

Chan added that he was uncomfortable about a comment that Leung once made about Deng Xiaoping deserving a Nobel Peace Prize. After botching the economics debate, his character could not attract enough votes to avoid a stalemate.

Chan said that while he did not attend the protests, he watched the real elections on television and was disappointed with the results. “Hong Kong needs universal suffrage, otherwise the elections in the future will be the same as now,” he said.

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--Jonathan Kaiman

Photo: Protesters demonstrate outside the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center, site of the chief executive election. Credit: Jerome Favre / Bloomberg.

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