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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Hong Kong's Divisive Election

Mar. 24, 2017

The election for Hong Kong’s top political job will take place on Sunday, and the result could determine the course of a city that's becoming more polarized over Beijing's growing influence.

Carrie Lam, the former government number 2, reportedly has the backing of Beijing and business leaders. During pro-democracy protests in 2014, she stood firm against student leaders.

One of her opponents, former Financial Secretary John Tsang, is trying to pull off a major upset. Tsang is sympathetic to the student protestors, and local media say senior Chinese leaders told him not to run.

Opinion polls show Tsang is comfortably ahead of Lam and the third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing.

But election committee members -- not ordinary people -- pick the chief executive. The committee consists of just 1,200 voters, and is dominated by pro-China delegates.

Lam may already have half those votes in the bag -- she entered the race with the nomination of 580 committee members.


Beijing Looms Large
Takuma Yoshioka

Many residents see the ballot as a test of Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy activists burst into one of Carrie Lam's campaign events, calling her Beijing’s puppet. The backlash reflects mainstream opinion since mass pro-democracy protests erupted 3 years ago. People in Hong Kong are now much more sensitive about Beijing's intervention.

"I might not be able to fend off the negative effect on my campaign," Lam said.

A local survey shows her support rate plummeting, with nearly half the respondents saying they oppose her. John Tsang has gained ground with a street-level campaign. He’s hoping public support might change the tide within the election committee.

"Carrie Lam doesn’t listen to people’s voices. She’s not chosen by our one-person-one-vote principle," says a 50-year-old woman who lives in Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy members hold more than a quarter of the seats in the committee. They see Tsang as their former foe, but have set aside their differences just days ahead of the voting.

In the past, the most popular candidates won. Even pro-China delegates are concerned that Lam will struggle to run the government with such low support from the public.

"Under Carrie Lam, things will get done in HK, but it will continue to be divisive. It will give the pan-democratic camp a lot of ammunition to keep protesting and fighting for the next 5 years," says Hong Kong legislator Michael Tien.


NHK Hong Kong Bureau Chief Takuma Yoshioka joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio from Hong Kong.

Shibuya: Takuya, Beijing must be watching the election closely. Do you hear any reaction from them?

Yoshioka: Chinese leaders have been cautious not to publicly meddle, but they’ve warned against anyone who challenges its sovereignty.

"We will ensure that the principle of 'one country, two systems' is steadfastly applied in Hong Kong without being bent or distorted. The notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang

Still, some Hong Kong delegates say Beijing has made its preference clear. China's third-highest-ranking official again said Beijing holds the right to appoint the chief executive, suggesting it may reject a candidate it doesn't like. With the stakes so high, people are again taking to the streets, and many are bracing for further confrontation.

Beppu: People in Hong Kong are divided into pro-and anti-Beijing, so how will Beijing react to it?

Yoshioka: Beijing will demand for the stability of Hong Kong, no matter who wins. China has entered a politically sensitive period ahead of a major power shuffle within the communist leadership later this year. Also, there is talk that President Xi Jinping will make his first official visit to Hong Kong in July, on the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain.

China wants to show the world that "one country, two systems" is working well. Mass protests against Xi would challenge that claim and damage his authority. Once the election is over, Beijing could come up with a range of carrot-and-stick measures to ease public anger and frustration. Until then, Hong Kong is anxiously waiting for the result.