International Herald Tribune
Bowring: A hobbled election in Hong Kong
Thursday, August 7, 2008

HONG KONG: This territory is in the throes of an election campaign for its law-making Legislative Council, set for Sept. 7. But an electoral void already tells more about the current and future structure of power in Hong Kong than will the results next month.

To explain: Only half of the 60 council seats are allotted to members elected by universal suffrage. The rest are drawn from so-called functional constituencies, mainly representing business and professional interests and with the number of electors ranging from a handful to several thousand. No less than 11 of those seats are uncontested and, not coincidentally, they include representatives of the most powerful business groups.

The real estate sector, the pinnacle of power and money here, will again return unopposed a businessman, Abraham Shek, who sits on the boards of New World and other construction and development companies, and on various government-related bodies.

The finance sector, essentially stockbrokers, will again return unopposed a colorful figure, Chim Pui-chong, who was jailed a decade ago for forgery.

The banking sector will return unopposed a banker, David K.P. Li of the Bank of East Asia, who has held a council position since 1985 and is carrying on despite having recently been fined $8 million by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in relation to insider trading in shares of Dow Jones, of which he was a board member.

Likewise, place holders representing various commercial and industrial groups with narrow franchises will return unopposed as lobby fodder for the government and vested interests.

It is these individuals, many of whom make only infrequent appearances in the Council and its committees, who assure that the bonds of collusion between government and select business interests cannot be broken - whatever happens in elections for the popularly contested seats.

These bonds take several forms, but one is the propensity for the big property companies to hire former government servants at very high salaries. Just last week one of the biggest, New World, hired a former director of housing who only recently had been criticized in an audit report and a Legislative Council inquiry for permitting a project that lost the government a huge sum in land revenue and handed huge profits to a developer.

Such mistakes, usually to the public disadvantage, are all too common in relations between bureaucrats and big businesses controlling property and monopoly utilities. New World's other ex-government executives include a former chief of police who is the brother of Hong Kong's chief executive, Donald Tsang.

Business-government collusion is one issue frequently mentioned by pro-democracy candidates in campaigning for the directly elected seats. Although the government's popularity, particularly that of Tsang, has been in steep decline in recent months, pro-government parties look unlikely to lose seats overall.

Opposition democrats, represented by several groups, including the long-established Democrat Party and relatively new Civic Party, are disunited compared with their main opponents, the long-established, disciplined, highly organized and slavishly pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance, and the pro-business Liberal Party, which has deep pockets and whose leaders hold high-profile, quasi-government jobs. They may also benefit from the patriotic after-glow of the Olympics and Hong Kong's hosting of the equestrian events.

Not that the direct election results are easy to predict. The territory is divided into six geographical seats, each returning - depending on population - between four and eight members. As electors have only one vote, the outcome of many races will depend on a hard-to-predict mix of party loyalty, voting tactics and a given candidate's personal standing. Major parties need to field several candidates and there are several small parties and independents. Altogether, there are 133 contestants for the 30 seats. There are fierce contests, too, for some of the functional seats, with democrats more likely to win those with substantial electorates and the pro-government candidates those with narrow franchises.

The election result will change little, if anything. But it still matters that Hong Kong has a legislative body with enough members who try hard to challenge executive decisions and make government more transparent. Even its pro-government members sometimes find themselves at odds with an executive that would prefer not to be bothered with questions and inquisitive committees. Tsang and Beijing would prefer a docile rubber stamp. As it is, they have a Council they can largely control, but that still has enough life to show that two systems still exist in the one China. Unfortunately, the electoral system also ensures that the public interest is often hijacked by collusion between bureaucrats and corporate interests, something that Beijing can tolerate in return for following its political instructions.