Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 14

The declaration of Donald Tsang as unopposed winner of the race to become Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) on June 16, succeeding Tung Chee-hwa, was the culmination of events dating back almost exactly two years, to July 1, 2003.

On that day, well over half a million demonstrators marched through the streets of Hong Kong, shocking both the Tung administration and the central government in Beijing. The immediate cause of the protest was draconian national-security legislation mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law, but another major reason for the dissatisfaction felt by many people was the downward spiral of the economy over the preceding six years. The result had been high unemployment rates and – for many members of the middle class – negative equity, as home-owners were forced to pay mortgages on property whose value had declined precipitously.

Tung was forced to shelve the national-security bill when James Tien, a member of the Executive Council who was also chairman of the Liberal Party, withdrew his party’s support for the bill. Within weeks, the chief executive accepted the resignation of two of his principal officials – Financial Secretary Antony Leung and Secretary for Security Regina Ip. While Leung’s resignation was related to a corruption allegation investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the unpopular Ip had been the official responsible for drafting and shepherding the bill through the legislature.

Beijing was taken aback by this outpouring of public discontent. Chinese leaders had reposed great confidence in the Chief Executive, who had been handpicked as Hong Kong’s first post-colonial leader by then President Jiang Zemin. In fact, they had given him a second five-year term in 2002 even though, by then, there were ample signs that he was not fully up to the job.

Beijing dispatched large numbers of people to Hong Kong to find out why its 6.8 million residents were unhappy, and what could be done about it. One immediate conclusion was that Beijing needed to be more hands-on where Hong Kong was concerned. Under the principle of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong was meant to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, with local people running the SAR. However, from the beginning Beijing retained ultimate control over Hong Kong by controlling the process of choosing its leader. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the chief executive is elected not by the public at large but by an 800-member election committee, after which he (or she) must be appointed by the central government. In addition, the chief executive is accountable to both the central government and to the Hong Kong SAR.

Hong Kong’s democrats, who had led the July 2003 demonstration, sought to capitalize on the situation by demanding that the pace of democratization be stepped up. According to the Basic Law, the ultimate goal is to have both the chief executive and the entire legislature elected through universal suffrage, but no timetable is laid out.

The actual words are, “If there is a need to amend the method for selecting the Chief Executive for the terms subsequent to the year 2007, such amendments must be made with the endorsement of a two-thirds majority of all the members of the Legislative Council and the consent of the Chief Executive, and they shall be reported to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for approval.”

Where the legislature is concerned, however, there were only two hurdles. After approval by two-thirds of the Legislative Council and endorsement by the Chief Executive, it was only necessary to notify the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for the record, not to seek its approval. The Basic Law says that “… if there is a need to amend…such amendments must be made with the endorsement of a two-thirds majority of all the members of the Council and the consent of the Chief Executive, and they shall be reported to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for the record.”

The democrats demanded that the next chief executive, to be elected in 2007, as well as the legislature to be chosen in 2008 be elected by universal suffrage. Beijing responded with a barrage of criticism, accusing the democrats of being unpatriotic.

In April 2004, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued an “interpretation” of the Basic Law. Seizing on the phrase “if there is a need,” it declared: “Based on the principle that the Chief Executive shall be accountable to the central authorities, if amendments really need be made, the Chief Executive shall report to the NPC Standing Committee, and the issue shall be decided upon by the NPC Standing Committee….”

That is to say, Beijing, not Hong Kong, will decide if there is a need to change the electoral methods. In one stroke, Beijing took away from Hong Kong the right to initiate proceedings, which were clearly in the Basic Law.

Through the interpretation, Beijing laid down the principle that it – not Hong Kong – would decide when to move to universal suffrage. The following week, the Standing Committee issued a Decision formally ruling out the possibility of universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008.

Actually, from a practical standpoint Beijing had nothing to fear, since the democrats held only a minority of seats in the legislature – far from the two-thirds majority required. Moreover, even in the extremely unlikely event that the legislature were to support universal suffrage, the Chief Executive would certainly have blocked it on behalf of the central government.

The issuing of the Decision, therefore, reflected the nervousness on the part of top Chinese officials in Beijing. In fact, there was serious concern that the democrats could, in the September 2004 elections, gain a majority in the Legislative Council.

On July 1, 2004, the democrats sponsored another large demonstration, this time calling for full democracy. The turnout, while big, was not as huge as that of the previous year. While Article 23 legislation was no longer an issue, there was much dissatisfaction that the central government had acted to deprive Hong Kong of the opportunity of early democracy.

At the legislative elections in September, the democrats did gain a few seats, ending up with 25 out of 60 seats, still well short of a majority. However, Chinese leaders wanted to ensure that Hong Kong’s political stability not be put at risk; in December, while in Macau to mark the 5th anniversary of the return of the former Portuguese territory to Chinese sovereignty, President Hu Jintao delivered a public scolding to Chief Executive Tung in the presence of both Hong Kong and Macau officials.

In a videotape of the meeting between President Hu and Mr. Tung, the Chinese leader was seen telling the Hong Kong chief executive: “[You should] summarize your experience and identify inadequacies, and constantly raise the standard of administration and improve governance.” [1]

Evidently, Beijing remained dissatisfied with Mr. Tung’s performance. In February, it kicked him upstairs, appointing him a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top advisory body. The news quickly leaked and, by the end of February, the newspapers were full of speculation that Tung would soon step down to take up his CPPCC post.

On March 1, 10 newspapers reported on their front page that Tung would resign. However, Tung himself refused to either confirm or deny these reports. For 10 days, Hong Kong was treated to the spectacle of daily newspaper reports on Tung’s resignation, while the man himself refused to either confirm or deny these reports. On March 10, Tung finally announced that he was going to submit his resignation on health grounds.

As soon as the resignation was formally accepted, Chief Secretary for Administration Donald Tsang assumed the duties of Acting Chief Executive, as laid down in the Basic Law.

Almost immediately, another huge controversy erupted, centering on the length of the tenure of the next chief executive. The Basic Law said that the chief executive serves a five-year term and legal opinion in Hong Kong was that whoever succeeds Mr. Tung would serve a full five-year term. Soon, however, it transpired that Beijing’s view was that the new chief executive would simply serve out the remaining two years of Mr. Tung’s term.

There was speculation that Chinese leaders wanted to keep Tsang – a product of the British colonial government – on a short leash and therefore would only give him two years to begin with.

Tsang, as acting chief executive, had little choice but to ask for another interpretation of the Basic Law to determine the length of tenure of the next chief executive. As expected, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced that whoever was elected to succeed Mr. Tung would only serve a two-year term.

It soon became evident that Beijing wanted Tsang to be the next chief executive. His most likely challenger, Financial Secretary Henry Tang, announced that he would not run in the by-election, scheduled for July 10. Two legislators, Democrat Party chairman Lee Wing-tat and financial services representative Chim Pui-chung, threw their hats into the ring, but they never had a chance.

Under the Basic Law, in order to become a formal candidate, it is necessary to secure nominations from 100 members of the 800-member Election Committee. Both Lee and Chim failed to get anywhere close to 100 nominations. Donald Tsang, by contrast, was endorsed by 710 members of the Election Committee. And so, when the nomination period closed on June 16, he was declared to be the only qualified candidate and hence the next chief executive. No election will need to be held on July 10.

Tsang has made it clear that keeping the support of the central government is his top priority as chief executive, even while delivering better governance to the people of Hong Kong. According to the Public Opinion Programme poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong released on June 13, Tsang is also personally popular with 78 percent of the public’s support.

In choosing Tsang, the Chinese government has overcome its aversion to someone closely identified with the former British colonial government. Tsang was knighted Sir Donald in the closing days of the British administration.

Clearly, Beijing has learned to be more pragmatic and to make use of someone with a proven track record of government service and who is highly popular but who is not part of the pro-China camp.

Tsang has been saying all the right things, including gradually working towards universal suffrage, but he is unlikely to be able to make many major changes during his two years. For one thing, he is stuck with all of Tung’s principal officials as well as members of the Executive Council although he is likely to bring in a few new faces by enlarging the council.

If Tsang proves himself a better chief executive than his predecessor in the coming two years, it is highly likely that Beijing will then be willing to give him a five-year term in his own right. In the mean time, Tsang will have to watch his step, try to invigorate the economy and maintain his support both in Hong Kong and in Beijing. It will not be an easy act, but he may well pull it off.


1. South China Morning Post, December 21, 2004.