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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And in Hong Kong the race for the island's next leader has heated up. Extra-marital affairs, an underground pleasure palace and private jets are making headlines. Hong Kong is rocked by political scandals. As the local press puts it, Beijing has lost control of the puppet strings. NPR's Louisa Lim has this report.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: In the past, elections to pick Hong Kong's leader have been sedate affairs. A handpicked selection of the great and good has endorsed Beijing's choice in what's basically a rigged election. But not this time. With Beijing apparently judging two of three candidates acceptable, there are signs it's turning into something like a real race with the result unknown, and the process beset by mudslinging and scandal. Here's Emily Lau, acting chairperson of the Democratic Party.

EMILY LAU: The struggle between the two camps is exceedingly fierce, and very bloody. Very acrimonious. And you can say it's a bomb, you can say it's bloodletting - whatever you say would not be exaggerating.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We are tomorrow.

LIM: This is a campaign ad for Henry Tang, the former head of the civil service. Initially he was considered a shoo-in for the next leader. Then it emerged he'd cheated on his wife. And he had to apologize in public.

HENRY TANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: That sound was to become familiar. Here he's heard apologizing again. He's 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.

JAMES TIEN: When we see the situation 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 probably have now is either not to cast a vote, or to cast a blank vote.

LEUNG CHUN-YING: Hong Kong needs new hopes and a new outlook. We need...

LIM: That's contender number two, Leung Chun-ying. But he's in trouble too. He's being investigated for a conflict of interest over his role as the judge of a design competition. Seen as a reformer, he's popular among the public, but not among Hong Kong's super-rich tycoons.

DONALD TSANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: And now political troubles engulfed the current Chief Executive Donald Tsang too. He apologized for his behavior today. He's accused of accepting inappropriate favors from tycoons, including trips on private jets.

Speaking through a translator, he plead for understanding.

TSANG: (Through Translator) You may or may not have lost faith in me. But please, do not lose your faith in the institution of Hong Kong.

LIM: That shows just how damaging these scandals are. It's not about the money. It's about the idea of collusion between the government and tycoons. Here's analyst Jean-Pierre Cabestan from the Baptist University.

JEAN PIERRE CABESTAN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

LIM: Public anger is swirling with small protests. This could yet explode into larger street action.

Albert Ho is warning there could be fallout from the contentious race. He's the third candidate in the election. He's from the Democratic Party, and has no chance of winning.

ALBERT HO: Whoever is going to win, his governance would face severe credibility crisis. So much antagonism has arisen as a consequence of this recent negative campaigns. It's very bad for Hong Kong.

LIM: The 1,200 voters will choose Hong Kong's next leader on March the 25th. Many are now waiting for a signal for Beijing. It ultimately will have to choose between alienating the ordinary people of Hong Kong or its tycoons.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Hong Kong.

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