Race For Hong Kong's Next Leader Heats Up

Henry Tang (shown here in September 2011), the former head of Hong Kong's civil service, was once the front-runner in the race to be the island's next leader. Now, a series of scandals has hurt his prospects.

Henry Tang (shown here in September 2011), the former head of Hong Kong's civil service, was once the front-runner in the race to be the island's next leader. Now, a series of scandals has hurt his prospects. Bobby Yip/Reuters/Landov hide caption

itoggle caption Bobby Yip/Reuters/Landov

Extramarital affairs, an underground pleasure palace and private jets have made headlines in Hong Kong, as political scandals rock the island. The local press is claiming Beijing has "lost control of the puppet strings" in the race for the island's next chief executive.

In the 15 years since Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty, elections to pick Hong Kong's leader have been sedate affairs: A 1,200-person selection committee comprising political and business elites has endorsed Beijing's choice in what is basically a rigged election.

But not this time.

Journalists use cranes to take pictures and videos of the home of chief executive candidate Henry Tang, Feb. 16. After initially denying the allegations, he admitted to building an illegal 2,000-square-foot pleasure palace in his basement, with a wine cellar and a Japanese sauna. i i

Journalists use cranes to take pictures and videos of the home of chief executive candidate Henry Tang, Feb. 16. After initially denying the allegations, he admitted to building an illegal 2,000-square-foot pleasure palace in his basement, with a wine cellar and a Japanese sauna. ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images
Journalists use cranes to take pictures and videos of the home of chief executive candidate Henry Tang, Feb. 16. After initially denying the allegations, he admitted to building an illegal 2,000-square-foot pleasure palace in his basement, with a wine cellar and a Japanese sauna.

Journalists use cranes to take pictures and videos of the home of chief executive candidate Henry Tang, Feb. 16. After initially denying the allegations, he admitted to building an illegal 2,000-square-foot pleasure palace in his basement, with a wine cellar and a Japanese sauna.

ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

With two of the three candidates apparently acceptable to Beijing, there are signs it's turning into something like a real race — with the result unknown, and the process beset by mudslinging and scandal.

"The struggle between the two camps is exceedingly fierce, and very bloody," says Emily Lau, acting chairperson of the Democratic Party. "Very acrimonious — you can say it's a bomb, you can say it's bloodletting — whatever you say would not be exaggerating."

A Litany Of Apologies

Henry Tang, the former head of the civil service, was initially considered a shoo-in for the next leader. Then it emerged he had cheated on his wife, and he had to apologize in public.

It was to become a familiar sound. Tang has also admitted to building an illegal 2,000-square-foot pleasure palace in his basement. With a wine cellar and a Japanese sauna, it's reported to be four times the size of the average apartment. He blamed his long-suffering wife.

Public opinion turned against him; one voter, the honorary chairman of the pro-business Liberal Party, James Tien, says he can't ignore that.

"When our preferred candidate has 70 to 80 percent of the population objecting to him, even if he's elected, he cannot govern effectively. We feel that the only choice we have is either not to cast a vote, or to cast a blank vote," Tien says.

Protesters hold up signs criticizing Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang outside the island's Parliament, March 1. Tsang has been embroiled in controversy over his alleged ties to rich tycoons.  i i

Protesters hold up signs criticizing Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang outside the island's Parliament, March 1. Tsang has been embroiled in controversy over his alleged ties to rich tycoons. Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters hold up signs criticizing Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang outside the island's Parliament, March 1. Tsang has been embroiled in controversy over his alleged ties to rich tycoons.

Protesters hold up signs criticizing Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang outside the island's Parliament, March 1. Tsang has been embroiled in controversy over his alleged ties to rich tycoons.

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Contender No. 2, Leung Chun-ying, is in trouble, too. Hong Kong's Legislative Council has invoked special powers to investigate him for conflict of interest over his role in 2001 as the judge of a competition for the design of an arts hub, in which he allegedly voted for a company linked to his own.

Seen as a reformer, Leung is popular among the public but not among Hong Kong's super-rich tycoons.

And now political troubles have engulfed the current chief executive, Donald Tsang, too. He is accused of accepting inappropriate favors from tycoons, including trips on private jets. He was also accused of agreeing to pay below-market rent for an apartment belonging to a tycoon in Shenzhen in southern China.

On Thursday, he apologized for his behavior at a special hearing of the Legislative Council.

"The chain of events have created worries among the media and public, civil servants and lawmakers, and also shaken the public's belief in Hong Kong's system," Tsang told lawmakers. "For this I sincerely apologize to the public."

Tsang said he would not go ahead with the rental, and he also pleaded for understanding.

"You may or may not have lost faith in me. But please do not lose faith in the institution of Hong Kong," he said.

The other top candidate for chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (center, shown here Feb. 23), is also under scrutiny, for an alleged conflict of interest while judging a design contest for an arts complex — in which he allegedly voted for a company linked to his own. i i

The other top candidate for chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (center, shown here Feb. 23), is also under scrutiny, for an alleged conflict of interest while judging a design contest for an arts complex — in which he allegedly voted for a company linked to his own. Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images
The other top candidate for chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (center, shown here Feb. 23), is also under scrutiny, for an alleged conflict of interest while judging a design contest for an arts complex — in which he allegedly voted for a company linked to his own.

The other top candidate for chief executive, Leung Chun-ying (center, shown here Feb. 23), is also under scrutiny, for an alleged conflict of interest while judging a design contest for an arts complex — in which he allegedly voted for a company linked to his own.

Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty Images

Simmering Public Anger

Tsang's comments show just how damaging these scandals are: It's not about the money, but about the idea of collusion between the government and tycoons, says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political analyst and professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"All those things may lead a number of Hong Kong people to the conclusion that the political elite is not independent from the tycoons, but working for the tycoons, rather than for Hong Kong society, in making sure that the cartels and the monopolies the tycoons have enjoyed here for many years will be kept intact," Cabestan says.

Public anger is swirling with small protests, which could yet explode into larger street action. Albert Ho of the Democratic Party is warning there could be fallout from the contentious race. He is the third candidate in the election — and has no chance of winning.

"Whoever is going to win, his governance would face a severe credibility crisis. So much antagonism has arisen as a consequence of this recent negative [campaigning]," Ho says. "It's very bad for Hong Kong."

Some believe China's different political factions are lining up behind the two main candidates — the conservative princelings versus the reformist populists — making it a proxy war for larger interests. The 1,200 voters will choose Hong Kong's next leader on March 25.

Many are now waiting for a signal for Beijing, which, it appears, will have to choose between alienating the ordinary people of Hong Kong or its tycoons.

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