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Hong Kong politics: between British law and Beijing’s preference
A court in Hong Kong sentenced former Chief Executive Donald Tsang to 20 months in prison after finding him guilty of what was called “misconduct” involving real estate during his time at the helm of the city. Tsang, who was Hong Kong’s leader between 2005 and 2012, is the most senior city official ever to be convicted in a criminal trial and the highest ranking one to be put behind bars. Meanwhile, a new Chief Executive will be elected on 26 March in a process that critics say is far from democratic.
Although Hong Kong prides itself of the solid legal system it inherited from its time as a British colony, some see the Tsang verdict as harsh.
“The prosecution has been pursuing the case for the past three years,” says Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor, with the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“So he was convicted of improper conduct while in his high office and the 20-month sentence is slightly over expectation. People thought he might get off with maybe just 12 months or even less. It is a very stiff punishment for somebody who has served in the government for more than 40 years,” he says.
Donald Tsang was Hong Kong’s second Chief Executive after the handover of the territory form the UK to China in 1997.
He was replaced by the current one, C.Y. Leung [Leung Chun-ying] whose term ends this year.
Leung has proven to be a divisive figure, especially during the so-called Umbrella movement that protested against Beijing’s increasing influence in Hong Kong and the decision by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress that universal suffrage was not an option.
Indirect elections for the Chief Executive will take place on 26 March.
“The Electoral College, which will elect the new Chief Executive on March 26th, is not representative of the Hong Kong people,” says Lam.
“It consists of 1200 leaders of communities who are mostly pro-Beijing and pro-establishment. In any case we already know the result. Senior Chinese leaders came to Shenzhen recently, just over the border, and have made very clear that Carry Lam, who used to be the Number 2 in the administration, will be elected.
“So I think there is no shadow of a doubt that Carry Lam will be the Chief Executive because she enjoys Beijing’s' support. This is a sad development for Hong Kong's democracy,” he says.
Apart from Carry Lam, there are four other candidates for the position of Chief Executive. The most popular according to the polls is John Tsang, Hong Kong’s former Finance Secretary.
When he announced his candidacy on 19 January, John Tsang had a message of unity, saying that he wanted to “rebuild trust, re-establish unity, and rekindle hope,” and fight against “the anger, the polarization, the occasional irrational talks of independence and the confrontation that has torn our society apart”.
Given his current high standing in the polls (42.5 percent against 28.2 according to a poll published on 9 February by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post) Beijing cannot easily discard him.
“If it proves, towards the end of the election,” says Claudia Moh, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council for the Civic Party, “that John Tsang was gaining so much in the popularity ratings and if the result of the election came out to be the opposite, that Carry Lam won, then it shows you how Beijing has interfered in this election and it would be very embarrassing for Beijing to have to explain to the international community how that came about”.
But she thinks that whatever happens, Beijing wins. “If Carry Lam did win, [they would say] ‘ok, that's our favorite, no problem.’ But if it was somebody else, say John Tsang, they would still endorse him and they can say that ‘John Tsang is very popular with the Hong Kong people, and so we can now expect harmony, we can expect political cooperation in Hong Kong.’”