In the final instalment of our three-part series on the Election Committee polls this Sunday, the Post explores Beijing’s rare move to order Hong Kong tycoons and loyalists onto the streets to meet the people, with insiders noting it was equal parts experiment and monitoring exercise. Read parts one and two.
The message was a rare, direct instruction from the central government’s representative office in Hong Kong to some of the most powerful people in the city.
“Take to the streets, talk to people for at least two hours and report what you have done,” the liaison office told the assortment of tycoons and political heavyweights who had secured seats on the Election Committee that holds vast sway over deciding who will govern.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
They were told to show up at street booths and hand out leaflets to residents with the goal of explaining to the public the recent changes made to the committee and sparking interest in the coming Sunday polls for several hundred seats. Attendance would be recorded, one source told the Post.
The participants had mixed reactions to the outreach campaign that unfolded last weekend in the baking heat. Committee newcomers appeared to relish the platform and performed confidently. Some veterans knew how to fulfil the obligation without breaking into a sweat. But a few billionaires were clearly out of their element, with one leaving an elderly resident just as confused about the elections as she had been before stopping by for a brief chat.
Pointing to how the campaign was coordinated and closely monitored by the liaison office, insiders and analysts have said Beijing viewed the outreach as much more than a one-off bid to boost engagement in the polls. Rather, authorities were staging an experiment they hoped would enhance the legitimacy of the electoral process following its overhaul by the central government. The aim was to better connect the powerful with the public.
If the process was successful, Beijing would be more confident in tasking members of the revamped body with fronting greater responsibilities in governance, according to one insider.
But others were not impressed. At least one analyst said such publicity campaigns fell far short of effectively engaging a public already disillusioned by the political process with so many now not being allowed to vote.
‘Big Brother is watching’
The Election Committee has 1,500 seats after the revamp added 300, but only 364 will be contested as the remaining ones failed to attract enough candidates or were reserved for ex officio members. The open spots are scattered across just 13 of the committee’s 40 subsectors representing various professions and trades. Just 4,889 voters will cast ballots, compared with 232,915 people who took part in the previous round in 2016.
Those manning the booths last weekend have already secured their positions, either through appointments or walkovers.
They included billionaires once known as kingmakers for the clout they wielded over previous committees. But following the overhaul, their political influence has been sharply diluted by more than 1,000 members of the “national team” composed of Beijing loyalists and local representatives of national organisations.
They included: Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, son of tycoon Li Ka-shing; Adam Kwok Kai-fai, executive director of Sun Hung Kai Properties; Robert Ng Chee Siong, chairman of Sino Group, and his son Daryl Ng Win-kong; and Pansy Ho Chiu-king, chairwoman of Shun Tak Holdings and a daughter of late gambling tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun.
Speaking to the Post after manning a booth in Wong Tai Sin, Kwok, who is in the real estate and construction subsector, said:“I think this is a good first step for us as Election Committee members... And we’ll reflect [on what residents have told us] with the Hong Kong and central governments the best we can.”
At the booth in Tseung Kwan O, Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, the eldest son of entrepreneur Timothy Fok, made an appearance along with his wife Guo Jingjing, a four-time Olympic gold medallist. “It was a rewarding morning after gathering views from the people!” he said in a Facebook post.
But Sun Hung Kai chairman Raymond Kwok Ping-luen was spotted spending just a few minutes at his Wan Chai booth, bolting after posing for a photo op. Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan appeared embarrassed when an elderly woman he spoke to in Shek Tong Shui told reporters she remained none the wiser about the elections and wrongly referred to the polls as a lawmakers’ race.
While committee members have been empowered to nominate 40 candidates – some or all of whom can be from its ranks – for the legislature, the elections for this are set for December.
When the central government announced the overhaul in March, Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called it “minimally invasive surgery” to ensure only “patriots” held power in the city. But critics argued the changes had wiped out any dissent, and risked turning the political arena into an echo chamber of loyalists. In Sunday’s polls, only two opposition candidates are vying for seats, compared with more than 350 in 2016.
Beijing had not only overhauled election rules and the composition of the electoral body but was also laying out new expectations for members who had secured seats, and closely monitoring their performance during the electoral process, insiders said.
Hours after the outreach drive ended, Wen Wei Po, Beijing’s Hong Kong-based mouthpiece, published a long list of the names of people who showed up at the booths and noted some absentees who were not in town – an unprecedented practice seen by some pro-establishment insiders as a “de facto roll-call”.
“Some members rushed back to Hong Kong for the two-hour outreach, as they didn’t want to be named and shamed ... The liaison office now doesn’t mind telling you: Big Brother is watching,” said one ex officio committee member and lawmaker on condition of anonymity.
“Beijing expected those sitting on the powerful committee to connect to the community and be seen to be doing something constructive for Hong Kong.”
Sources told the Post numerous prominent businessmen and Beijing loyalists sent photos from the event and their takeaways to the liaison office shortly after they finished their visits.
But according to other insiders, some veterans managed to get around the instructions. Instead of braving the heat and possible criticism on the street, their community outreach consisted of visiting air-conditioned restaurants frequented by government supporters or homes of residents who regularly volunteered for pro-Beijing groups.
Whatever their tactics last weekend, the tycoons in town know that expectations of them have changed. They have to be seen to be linking with the wider public to lessen the sense of disconnect, but their political clout has also been significantly curtailed. Property moguls previously wielded control over a quarter of the committee seats. But after Beijing’s sweeping overhaul, as the Post earlier reported, the city’s most influential business families have been restricted to having only two members each on the committee.
Sources hinted that some of Hong Kong’s largest property conglomerates had also in recent months formed task forces, racing to develop “out-of-the-box solutions” to affordable housing, one of the city’s root problems that Beijing has made a priority to be fixed. They received the message to be more proactive with solutions and not to be seen as part of the problem, a source said.
“But the roles of the second- or third-generation tycoons are actually quite passive. This is unlike the old days when their fathers could directly approach and liaise with senior mainland officials,” said one top executive from a conglomerate.
The changed nature of the relationship was attributed to not only a generational shift but also an approach by central government officials to keep tycoons at arm’s length because of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. From the top executive’s understanding, Luo Huining, director of the liaison office, turned down most invitations to meet the tycoons to avoid opening himself up to accusations of collusion.
Expectations have changed not just for the tycoons on the Election Committee, as Beijing is also said to be counting on the newest sector it added as part of the revamp. Made up of 300 seats, the new “patriotic fifth sector” or the ultra loyalists, will be filled by local representatives of China’s top legislature, its top political advisory body and members of five prominent national organisations.
Many of them were also out on the streets last weekend as part of the exercise to connect with the public. Among them was Clarence Leung Wang-ching, son of Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, who was the vice-chairman of the All-China Youth Federation. The 42-year-old director of Sun Hing Knitting Factory, a garment and investment company, said he felt a strong sense of responsibility to promote the revamped elections when he talked to residents in Whampoa over the weekend.
“Some people really did not know there’s an Election Committee poll ... so we need to explain to them. Some people even thought: ‘Hurry up, someone is giving out free gifts’,” said Leung, who is also a member of the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong.
Businesswoman Eva Choy Chi-ting, 50, who represented the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, said the reticence she encountered from residents during the outreach did not deter her from forging ahead to better engage business and industrial groups.
“At first, the shop owners [I met in North Point] were reluctant to share their views with us, but I think that if we keep doing this regularly, we will be able to gather more views from residents in the future,” she said.
Accountant Stanley Choi Tak-shing, 45, representative of the China Overseas Friendship Association, who gave out fliers in Sheung Wan, recalled a conversation he had with a young man in his twenties who asked him aggressively why the electoral system had to be overhauled.
Choi said he spent time explaining how the changes were meant to make the various subsectors in the committee more representative.
“I explained to him that there were 30 seats for accountants in the committee, but in the past none of the seats went to the chairmen and presidents of prominent accounting guilds. All those elected were accountants or even young accounting clerks. Was this a good phenomenon?” Choi added.
Several of those in the fifth sector said they had previously done engagement work but the new expectation was not unreasonable, especially if it helped cement a better acceptance of the electoral overhaul.
Indeed, observers regarded the unprecedented outreach drive ahead of the polls as an attempt by Beijing to enhance the legitimacy of the process, and a test to assess whether the approach could be effective in keeping tycoons and elites in touch with the people they must serve.
“We can see that members of the new and uncontested subsectors were active in getting exposure,” said Professor Song Sio-chong, of Shenzhen University’s Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau. “This is Beijing’s way of telling the world that our electoral system is different from the West, that we have some elements of consultation.”
If the experiment proved successful, Beijing would be more confident in handing committee members more responsibilities.
“It could be like how the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference or even the Communist Party’s supervisory committees operate on the mainland,” he said.
But other analysts said such efforts had to go beyond providing publicity or the “optics” of the ground accepting the new electoral system. The new system must deliver results, according to Andrew Fung Ho-keung, chief executive of the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute think tank.
He said whether the revamped electoral system would gain legitimacy depended on the ability of committee members, lawmakers and the chief executive to address people’s concerns over the next five years.
In the past, he said, membership in the Election Committee had different ends: some opposition members were just concerned about being radical enough to secure votes while some in the pro-Beijing camp simply treated membership as a badge of honour and nothing more.
“But Beijing determined that Hong Kong’s politics could not function like that. The central government now has high expectations for officials and other public officers and they must fulfil their duties.”
But veteran communications strategist Andy Ho On-tat, who served as former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s information coordinator, said engagement campaigns could only go so far when they failed to address a fundamental misgiving people had about the overhaul. He pointed to how the significant shrinkage in the electorate for the Election Committee polls had already turned people off from politics.
“The drive, in whatever scale, will not address the fundamental issue that most of the population do not have a vote. The crux is what they can do next to make people feel the elections are relevant to their life.”
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung and Lilian Cheng
The first instalment of this three-part series looked at how insiders had noted that two other major elections were likely to follow the same formula of controlled competition. The second part explored how Hong Kong’s polls could mirror Macau’s.
More from South China Morning Post: