China’s preferred candidate has won the heavily restricted election for a new leader of Hong Kong in a contest that pitted popular appeal against lobbying by Beijing.
Carrie Lam, the former deputy to outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying, beat the former financial secretary John Tsang and former judge Woo Kwok-hing.
She won 777 votes out of the 1,194 eligible to be cast to become the city’s first female leader. Her tally was more than double that of runner-up Tsang. The election was the first for the top job since pro-democracy protests gripped the former British colony in 2014.
Sunday’s result was a widely expected victory for Beijing’s anointed candidate. Only 0.03% of Hong Kong’s registered voters are able to cast a ballot, with the election committee comprised mostly of elites loyal to Beijing. Those who have a say include all 70 members of the city’s legislature and some district politicians, business groups, professional unions, pop stars, priests and professors.
Several members of the election committee erupted with cries of “I want genuine universal suffrage” after the vote tally was announced, but were largely ignored with Lam’s supporters posing for a photo.
“This result is a nightmare to Hong Kongers,” Nathan Law, a pro democracy legislator, said after the vote.
“Lam’s victory despite her lack of representation and popular support reflects the Chinese Communist party’s complete control over Hong Kong’s electoral process and its serious intrusion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
The highly-scripted ballot counting ceremony looked more like a game show than a political battle for the territory’s future.
“Lam has demonstrated more obedience during her tenure in government,” said Matthew Wong, a politics professor at Hong Kong University. “Her willingness to handle the political reform in 2014, which was very controversial, and her persistence was seen favorably by Beijing.”
Lam met student leaders of the pro-democracy protests in 2014, and ended up taking a hard line against concessions on the reform package offered by Beijing.
Lam’s loyalty proved far more important than the will of ordinary Hong Kong citizens. Tsang was the more popular candidate, ahead of Lam by 26 points in the day leading to the election, according to a poll by Hong Kong University.
Many in the city’s pro-democracy camp decried the poll as a “selection, not an election”, and about 1,000 protesters gathered in the city’s main shopping district a day before the poll to rally against the vote.
Lam will begin her five-year term on 1 July, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is expected to travel to the Hong Kong to swear her in. The date also marks the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese control, a highly sensitive occasion likely to spark both celebration and street protest.
Lam has said she will not attempt to restart discussions on political reform, despite the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, saying: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage.”
“We shall start with connecting to resolve the simpler, less controversial issues,” she told the Guardian. Lam directly benefitted from the lack of open elections, and would likely have lost if Hong Kong citizens were given a “one person, one vote” system.
But for those that did vote, the calculus was more simple. Many owe their business or political success to cozy relations with Chinese authorities. A stream of luxury vehicles ferried voters to the lone polling station, a convention centre on the city’s waterfront.
“For the few that could vote, a lot of these people are professionals and businesses, they may actually believe Lam will run Hong Kong better in terms of their interests,” said Michael Tien, a pro-establishment lawmaker who voted for Tsang.
“For these voters, political autonomy, having choices and competition is not the most important thing.”
However, Beijing’s detention of five Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 and the disappearance of a Chinese billionaire this year have undermined confidence in the “one country, two systems” formula.
While Beijing has not explicitly backed any candidate, senior officials have stressed certain conditions must be met, including a new leader having the “trust” of China’s Communist leaders. Many voters, including Tien, have said they were approached by “people very close to Beijing” and were encouraged to support Lam.
“Just because a candidate is leading popularity polls doesn’t necessarily mean you should vote for (that person),” outgoing city leader Leung said on Friday.