A Campaign in Hong Kong without a (Real) Election

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 8

Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s reelection campaign was marked by a gesture symptomatic of his style—a grossly exaggerated and prolonged handshake. While a victory for Donald Tsang was anything but uncertain, both his campaign and handshake exhibited awkwardness as well as a desire to dominate his opponent. Tsang was unaccustomed to being politically challenged and at times during the campaign, revealed his contempt for the electoral system. Displeased that he had to debate the competition, he complained that the people in Hong Kong would be willing to nominate even a “useless person” just to ensure competition. In the end, on March 25, Tsang had received 649 votes out of the total 772 valid votes that had been cast, providing him with a comfortable margin over the 123 votes received by pro-democracy candidate Alan Leong. Yet, it was Tsang’s poor performance at the first critical televised debate with Leong, representing the Civic Party, which gave a second wind to his challenger’s efforts. The debate became a Hong Kong political milestone—people witnessed Tsang’s power punctured by an individual who had no chance of winning.

Beijing’s Helping Hand

Throughout the entire campaign, Beijing was explicit in its support of Donald Tsang. Senior officials from Zhongnanhai, such as State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, openly supported Tsang soon after the Chief Executive had declared his candidacy, expressly praising his election platform and wishing him a smooth victory. Endorsements also came from Commissioner of the Office of Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong Lu Xinhua, and Li Gang, Deputy Director of the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong (China Daily, February 7).

Tsang launched his campaign by first meeting with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), the traditional pro-Beijing grassroots party that controlled 111 Election Committee votes. He then followed up with the Liberal Party, which bills itself as a party representing business interests, and together with its allies, influenced 110 votes in the Election Committee. The party had two complaints, however, that could have affected the course of the election (though not the predetermined outcome). Members of the Liberal Party felt sidelined by the government when it had not consulted with them prior to enacting unfavorable policies, particularly the ones relating to a minimum wage law and a competition law, both of which were supported by the DAB (South China Morning Post, February 25; The Standard, February 27; South China Morning Post, February 27). These differences led to rumors that some 50-100 Election Committee members from the business sector would cast blank votes as a sign of disapproval.

Yet this seemed unlikely, given that many of Hong Kong’s business elites, Liberal Party members and DAB members are also appointees to the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Thus, when they were in Beijing during the annual meetings of these national bodies earlier in the month, authorities in Beijing used these occasions to lobby them and ensure that Tsang would not lose their votes in the election, irrespective of their differences. Beijing had felt the need to ensure that Tsang would be returned to office with the maximum number of votes, given that a sizable number of blank votes would damage Tsang’s credibility. News reports quoted unnamed sources saying: “The central government has fully mobilized every channel to consolidate support for Mr. Tsang.” Two high-profile meetings with the Liberal Party and the DAB—considered to be vote-consolidation endeavors by Beijing—were hosted by Liu Yandong, who heads the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department (South China Morning Post, March 15) [2].

Efforts by other pro-Beijing individuals in Hong Kong also emerged during the campaign. In an attempt by loose-tongued gambling tycoon Stanley Ho to further secure votes for Tsang, he warned on March 11 that those Election Committee members casting blank votes could be tracked down by the government of Hong Kong (and punished). His gaffe, which proved to be detrimental and counterproductive, called for quick damage control by Beijing. Qiao Xiaoyang, the deputy secretary-general of the Standing Committee of the NPC emphasized that voting would be “open, fair and just” and that voters were entitled to vote according to their conscience (The Standard, March 13).

Horse Trading for Victory

Promises of political rewards and appointments in return for votes also proved to be just as potent as, if not more than, the pressure from Beijing. Allen Lee Peng Fei, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, stated that Zhongnanhai’s fears had subsided because Tsang was expected to secure votes by rewarding the Liberal Party and the DAB with influential appointments (The Standard, March 10-11). Just days before the election, on March 19, it was revealed that the chairman of the Liberal Party, James Tien, was likely to be appointed as the chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The news came as a surprise to many since Tien had no previous experience with tourism matters (South China Morning Post, March 19). Just days later, however, Tien told reporters that the Liberal Party would not want to be on Tsang’s second term Executive Council, at least not until after the next Legislative Council election in September 2008, because any formal association with the administration would cost the party votes. Instead, the party wanted more of its members appointed to important advisory bodies (South China Morning Post, March 27). In other words, the Liberal Party wanted (and received) the best of all worlds. On March 27, Tien was named the new chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board (The Standard, March 28; South China Morning Post, March 28). That same day, DAB chairman Ma Lik revealed an agenda different from that of his Liberal Party counterparts stating that the election marked a “breakthrough” for further cooperation between the party and Tsang: “From ministers and deputy ministers to ministerial assistants, and even heads of major statutory and advisory bodies, we have suitable candidates…if the government wants us to provide names.” Soon after the election, Ma reminded Tsang whom the Chief Executive could rely upon, reiterating the DAB’s desire to assume positions on the Executive Council (South China Morning Post, March 28).

The Televised Debates

Yet, in spite of the deals that had sealed the outcome of the race long before the actual election, Donald Tsang was forced to publicly debate Alan Leong twice, given the tremendous public pressure for televised debates. The first occasion was hosted by Election Committee members, whereas the second was organized by Hong Kong’s electronic media. The televised debates each drew some two million viewers.

The first debate on March 1 proved to be a highly charged event. Leong’s strong performance during the 90-minute debate made the public appreciate the benefit of having a challenger. Leong helped to crystallize several issues of public concern, such as education, health care, poverty and air quality, and for the first time, Tsang was forced to respond to Leong’s proposed policies with his own platform. Immediately following the first debate, a poll of 510 individuals was conducted by the University of Hong Kong showing that 42.1 percent of the people who identified themselves as “pro-democracy” would have voted for Leong, compared with just 25.2 percent in late February. Leong’s support from moderates also increased from 9.7 percent to 18.1 percent.

The shift was reflected in Tsang’s loss of support from these two camps. Tsang would have received 64.1 percent from the pro-democracy respondents had there been an election before the debate, but his lead was reduced to 48.4 percent after the debate. Votes from the respondents who thought of themselves as political moderates would have fallen from 77 percent to 71 percent. According to another instant poll conducted by Lingnan University’s public governance program, of the 611 respondents, 36.5 percent said Leong had improved his image compared with 26.7 percent, who thought that Tsang had won the day. When it came to whom they would vote for if the election were held that day, and assuming that they could vote, 61.4 percent opted for Tsang and 25.9 percent favored Leong. Leong scored particularly well with viewers on the issue of introducing of universal suffrage in 2012 (The Standard, March 2) [3].

It was clear to Tsang that he had to perform far better the next time, and indeed, the second debate on March 15 was a much closer match. Following the second debate, most of the respondents to snap polls, however, opted to vote for Tsang, even if they thought that Leong had performed better. According to a University of Hong Kong instant survey, 38.9 percent of the 520 respondents thought that Tsang had performed better in the debate while 39.3 percent thought had Leong done better.

The Quest for Suffrage

Leong’s most important contribution to the campaign was to have drawn Donald Tsang into a debate on democracy. Had there not been a credible opponent, Tsang would have only needed to provide an election platform that satisfied Hong Kong’s functional interests and still been re-elected without contest. Yet, because of the political challenge from Leong, Tsang promised to propose a “green paper” on suffrage in the middle of 2007 for a three-month public consultation. Based on the public’s opinion, “a mainstream proposal [would] be presented to Beijing” and Tsang stated that he would not “rule out any date for universal suffrage, including 2012” (South China Morning Post, March 16). Tsang later backed away from such explicit language and instead, when questioned by an interviewer regarding a timetable and set date for universal suffrage, ambiguously responded, “We must follow what people want. If people want universal suffrage according to a certain scheme of things, particularly a certain form of universal suffrage leading up to a final date and that is the favored decision, I will put that up faithfully to the central government” (CNN Interview, March 12).

Donald Tsang may be satisfied with a capitalist regime that maintains the rule of law, allows a large degree of personal freedom operating under a strong, centralized political authority and holds periodic elections that are tightly controlled. Yet, the question is whether a political system structured along these lines will be acceptable to the people of Hong Kong. Tsang’s proposal for a public consultation on suffrage is likely to be viewed skeptically by the people of Hong Kong, given Beijing’s penchant for “united front” tactics in generating a tremendous number of responses that are favorable to the Chinese leadership. If this indeed becomes the case, what Tsang seems to envision as the future political system of Hong Kong—a capitalist quasi-democratic regime—will likely be dismissed by the public as little more than a pretense for Beijing’s continued exercise of authority. The current provisional mandate that Tsang has secured will also be conditional upon his willingness to consider the broader public’s interests during his tenure for the coming five years. If his policies—guaranteed to be closely scrutinized by public—are viewed as pandering to Beijing’s preferences or to the interests of a select group of elites, Tsang’s moral authority will be undoubtedly compromised.


1.”Xuanju Xinqing, qu 401 piao zugou chen yihou feichai can xuan dou gou piao” [Getting 401 nominations will be enough, even ‘useless people’ can obtain enough nominations], Ming Pao, March 22, 2007. The original phrase was: “If a ‘useless person’ steps forward, there will still be enough nominations for him as he will have to take part in the competition.”

2. The report said delegates to meetings in Beijing who were also Election Committee voters were contacted either by officials from the Communist Party’s propaganda department or by officials from other departments.

3. A number of political commentators also thought that Leong performed better than Tsang; Ma Ngok gave Tsang 60 points and Leong 75; Sung Lap Kung gave Tsang 70 and Leong 80; and Ivan Choy gave Tsang 68 and Leong 73, see “Xueze: Liang biancai chuse sheng ceng, te shou jiang shiji, xianwei reng ting ceng.” [Academics: Leong’s debate performance is better than Tsang’s, CE values pragmatism, EC members still back Tsang], Hong Kong Economic Times, March 2, 2007.