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Hong Kong's Pan-Democrats Grapple With Endorsing the ‘Lesser Evil’ for Chief Executive

John Tsang (the lesser evil), CY Leung (the most evil), Carrie Lam and CY Leung combined (the greater evil). Image from Hong Kong Free Press.

The election of Hong Kong's top leader, known as the chief executive, is to take place on March 26, and the nomination period will run from February 14 to March 1.

Ordinary people in Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China, are excluded from nominating and electing their leaders. Instead, potential candidates have to be endorsed by at least 150 members of a 1,200-member election committee composed of representatives of different sectors. The 1,200 members will then vote on March 26 and decide who is going to rule Hong Kong for the next five years.

One of the big divisions in the election committee is between Beijing loyalists and those who put other interests first. That could come into play in a big way in the upcoming election. The pan-democracy camp has 325 election committee seats. Furthermore, 285 members representing local business who had voted for Henry Tang in 2012 have expressed discontent over current Chief Executive CY Leung's unpopular ruling style, which some argue is partly the result of political tactics imported from the Chinese Communist Party.

This means it is quite likely that Beijing loyalists control less than 600 votes in the upcoming election. While current Chief Executive CY Leung has declared he would not run for the re-election, some from the business sector have returned to the loyalist camp. However, if a portion of business sector and the pan-democrats decide not to give their votes to the candidate blessed by the Liaison Office, the winner would not have a popular mandate even within a small circle.

The four front-runners

In fact, Beijing’s decision to stop backing CY Leung’s bid for re-election has sent a signal that it expects the next chief executive to be more popular. Beijing’s attitude has also been reflected in the four criteria put forward by Wang Guangya, China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director, in early January: the future chief executive should 1. love China and love Hong Kong; 2. be trusted by Beijing; 3. be capable of governing; and 4. be supported by the Hong Kong people.

Currently, there are four potential candidates who have started lobbying members of the election committee to endorse their candidacy by giving them their nomination. They are Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a lawmaker and former security secretary; Carrie Lam, ex-chief secretary and a key ally of CY Leung; Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge; and John Tsang, ex-finance chief.

Among the four, Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong told its loyalists on the election committee that Carrie Lam has been handpicked by the Central Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party to replace CY Leung as the next chief executive. That has led many Hong Kongers to believe that if Carrie Lam becomes the chief executive, she would be a puppet of Beijing and would not defend the city’s autonomy.

John Tsang, who is supported by the local business sector and professional groups, is generally viewed as a “lesser evil” candidate. Such a view is reflected in his successful crowdfunding campaign, and some election committee members from the pan-democracy camp have been considering nominating him.

Yet, whether Tsang is really a “lesser evil” and how exactly he is less evil than other candidates has been a subject of heated debates on social media.

John Tsang, a ‘lesser evil'?

Tsang has stated that future political reform should fall in line with Beijing’s “831 decision” — a framework on elections handed down by the National People’s Congress standing committee on August 31, 2014. Hong Kong's constitution, known as the Basic Law, states that the chief executive should be elected by the Hong Kong people “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” and the 2017 chief executive election was meant to be the first in which Hong Kongers got to vote.

The “831 decision,” however, required that a 1,200-member committee decide the candidates first and limited the number of candidates to two or three, prompting thousands of people to occupy Hong Kong's downtown for months demanding that citizens have a say in the nomination in what was dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution”. Hong Kong's legislature eventually rejected the political reform package for 2017, leaving the current election-by-committee system in place.

Tsang has also said he would kickstart the Basic Law Article 23 legislation as soon as possible once elected. Article 23 demands that Hong Kong to enact a set of laws to prohibit acts of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against mainland China's central government. A previous attempt to pass the legislation triggered protests of half a million people in 2003.

Leung Kam Shing, a district councilor, wrote on citizen media platform inmediahk that Tsang would be no better than Beijing's favored candidate Carrie Lam:

林鄭、曾俊華任何一人當選,對中共似乎也沒有損失。從過去的政績到參選政綱,曾俊華也是「延續梁振英政策」,過去拒絕善用政府財政盈餘作長遠規劃,到政綱拒絕設立全民性免審查的退休保障制度、拒絕標準工時立法等,哪處不是延續梁振英政策。連梁振英不敢宣之於口的「廿三條立法」,曾俊華也敢做。所謂的「休養生息」只是空談,是中共「和諧社會」的「本土」說法

If either Carrie Lam or John Tsang win the race, the Chinese Communist Party will remain unharmed. From John Tsang's performance [as financial secretary] and what is written in his election platform, he will also continue CY Leung’s policies — in the past, he refused to use government surplus to plan for the future, now in his policy platform he still refuses to set up a universal pension scheme and legislation to standardize working hours. Even CY Leung dared not mentioned the enactment of Article 23, but now John Tsang has the guts to do so. The slogan of rebuilding trust, unity and hope is just an empty promise. It is just a local version of the Chinese Communist Party’s “harmonious society”.

‘You shouldn't make a deal with evil if you can’t exercise control over it’

To avoid having to compromise on a candidate, pro-democracy lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung announced he would enter the chief executive race if he receives 1 percent of registered voters’ support, i.e. 37,790 citizen nominations. He would then use the public mandate to persuade the 300-plus pan-democratic election committee members to nominate him.

Leung’s move has triggered another round of debates within the pan-democrats as some are worried that his candidacy doesn't have any real chance of winning.

Searching the Facebook hashtag “‪Leung Kwok-hung is guilty of ruining democracy” (#‎民主罪人梁國雄)‬ sees angry comments like:

長毛食古不化,民主300+只是用選票在小圈子限制下盡量跟隨民意,事關反民意的結果是畀林鄭更大機會勝出!過往做法係選委人數少,更多的考慮是候選人差不多,邊個勝出,民意上無過激反應,更不會怪罪民主派!但這次不同,如果因為民主派投白票或投畀對林鄭威脇不大的人而使林鄭勝出,民主派將成為千夫所指,萭民唾棄!

Long Hair is too stubborn. The 300-plus pro-democracy election committee members only need to follow public opinion and cast their votes in the small circle election. Otherwise Carrie Lam will win. In the past, we didn't have so many election committee members, the chief executive candidates were of a similar nature and the public had not shown any preference. They would not blame the democrats for the result. But this time if the democrats cast blank votes or vote for candidates who don’t have a chance of winning, and Carrie Lam wins because of this, the democrats will be cursed.

But many have defended Leung’s action. For example, university professor Ho Chi-Kwan said on Facebook:

支持長毛唔係話佢係共主,係想透過佢参選凝聚住一股民間力量以抗「林惡惡」或監察「曾溫水」並且 確立民間公民提名制(突破以圈子,反对欽點)讓公民社會在整個小圈子選舉過程中有話語權, 鞏固雨傘成果(爭取真普選,保衛香港家園和核心價值等)。

Supporting Long Hair does not mean that we see him as our leader, but it's to build solidarity within civil society to fight the evil Carrie Lam or to monitor the less evil John Tsang. The process is also to establish the mechanism of “citizen nomination” and empower the public to speak out against the small circle election system and to consolidate the values we struggled for during the Umbrella Revolution.

Facebook user Billy Ho said if he were to vote, he would vote for ex-judge Woo Kwok-hing, who he considered the real lesser evil:

我也提名了,不是長毛,更絕不會是曾俊華,而是胡國興。
我不能忍受主流泛民同埋薯粉,竟然在薯片政綱還未公佈前,就用一句 “lesser evil” 作為挺曾的理由。好了,薯片出了政綱,泛民,他又有幾多政綱和泛民理念接近?如果因為薯片現在民望高所以提名他,哪他日周浩 鼎 民望高,又提名他媽?
而我至起碼看見胡官盡力在泛民與建制間中間落墨。[…]

If I had to give my nomination, I would give it not to Long Hair, absolutely not to John Tsang, but to Woo Kwok-hing.
I can accept that the mainstream democrats and John Tsang’s fans used the idea that he's the “lesser evil” to campaign for him even before he announced his election platform. Now that John Tsang has released his policy platform, exactly which policy of his is in alignment with the pan-democrats? If you give John Tsang the vote because he is popular, will you give Holden Chow [pro-Beijing lawmaker] the vote if he is popular?
Currently, I can see that Judge Woo has worked very hard to create space for negotiation between the pan-democrats and the pro-establishment camp […]

Woo has proposed to expand the voter base of the chief executive nomination committee and achieve universal suffrage in 15 years. He has also argued that before the public has consensus on political reform, the government should not enact Article 23.

Billy Ho further elaborated:

泛民現在應該做的,是用長毛和胡國興做籌碼來逼曾俊華作出更進步的政治承諾,而不是無條件地向evil (哪怕多 lesser也好!)獻媚!既然是 evil ,在未能充份控制牠時,就絕不與牠交易。而這樣才是真正的體制內抗爭!

What the pan-democrats should do is use Long Hair and Woo Kwok-HIng as a chip to force John Tsang into presenting more progressive political stances rather than flirting with evil, even if it is “lesser”. You shouldn't make a deal with evil if you can’t exercise control over it, this should be the principle of negotiations.

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