On Friday evening, thousands of people crowded into an open area along Hong Kong’s famous harbour front – they applauded, shouted slogans and waved their smartphones in the air, creating a sea of lights against the night sky.
“John Tsang! Get elected!” they cried in support of the city’s former finance chief and one of three candidates running in the March 26 Chief Executive election.
Judging from the crowd’s enthusiasm, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was a real election and the people in the crowd had votes. The truth is, only 1,194 people from certain sectors of society and skewed towards pro-Beijing forces, form the Election Committee that will decide who wins. To get on to the ballot, each candidate had to get 150 nominations from this select group.
A top-notch PR campaign
Since entering the race, Tsang has consistently led in opinion polls. He is mobbed by selfie-seeking supporters wherever he goes and his savvy social media posts and live broadcasts garner thousands of likes.
But he is not the favourite to win on March 26. Instead it is his old colleague and the former number two in the government, Carrie Lam who is seen as the likely victor. Lam has run a gaffe-strewn campaign – including an admission that she didn’t know where to buy toilet paper– that has tarnished her previous reputation as a capable administrator.
Despite this, Lam has been presented as Beijing’s anointed one. Chinese officials allegedly summoned pro-establishment Election Committee members across the border to nearby Shenzhen to give them the message that Lam is the only candidate with Beijing’s backing. Some members say they’ve received phone calls from Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong reaffirming that message.
China has said that there are four criteria for who can be Chief Executive: They must love the country and love Hong Kong, be capable of governing, be trusted by the central government and be supported by Hong Kong people.
Lam’s track record as current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s would-be enforcer means Beijing can give her a pass on the first three, but she clearly lacks broad public support. Tsang has strong public support, but pro-Beijing figures have briefed that he is not entirely trusted by Beijing.
A commentary by a senior Hong Kong member of China’s top advisory body said Tsang’s failure to sign a petition opposing the Occupy Central movement and his willingness to work with the democratic opposition made him an unsuitable candidate.
But it is precisely the same things that make him popular with the public. Despite being an establishment figure, Tsang is seen as more willing to speak up for Hong Kong and less likely to blindly follow China’s orders. His earlier public support for the Hong Kong football teamin its World Cup qualifiers against China also won him plaudits.
Hongkongers have long struggled to achieve their dream of representative government, and the outcome of the March 26 election will not resolve the territory's lack of democracy.
Tsang is an unlikely political star. With a mop of grey hair and the moustache that earned him the nickname Mr Pringles (after the logo for the potato chips), his laid-back air and his somewhat halting speech, he is no smooth talker. Yet in the space of two months, he has become a phenomenon.
Part of this is down to a top-notch PR campaign that has managed to connect with what many ordinary Hongkongers are thinking and feeling after five years of Leung Chun-ying’s highly divisive and combative rule. They see Lam as bringing more of the same and see Tsang as the only person who can stop her election.
The last point is why most of the pro-democracy members of the Election Committee will be voting for him, even though the third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing is standing on a more politically progressive platform.
Divisions in the pro-democracy camp
But reaching something like a consensus on the issue hasn’t been easy. By winning 326 seats, the pro-democracy forces to a certain extent, became victims of their own success. They don’t have enough votes to elect their own candidate but they have enough to create a sense of expectation among their supporters that they can make an impact.
Even qualified support for Tsang within the camp has created sharp divisions. Some see it as a betrayal of democratic ideals. Tsang is considered too business-friendly; he has said he supports the enactment of a controversial national security law (after wide consultations and with human rights safeguards); and he has said that the political reform process must take account of Beijing’s “831 framework” which imposes a system to screen candidates to make sure they are acceptable to Beijing when “one person, one vote” is eventually introduced for election of the Chief Executive.
Some pro-democrats have already said that they would rather cast blank votes or vote for Woo than vote against their conscience. Some don’t want to tie their political fortunes to a candidate who supports the national security law and Beijing’s framework for screening candidates.
Whatever the result, Tsang and his team have succeeded on at least one count: They have turned a rigged race between two career bureaucrats into a subject of impassioned debate in the community and galvanised people who don’t even have a vote.
One of the common refrains Tsang gets from members of the public on his walkabouts is “You’ve won, you’ve already won.”
What exactly has he won? Well, popular opinion certainly. His poll advantage against Lam widened as the campaign progressed. He has also secured the qualified support of a significant section of the pro-democracy camp, and the gratitude of mainstream Hongkongers who see him as a vessel for their own hopes of a respite from polarised politics, mutual distrust and the stagnant governance of the past five years.
One of the most popular of Tsang’s many slickly produced promotional videos features a heartfelt appeal from Tsang’s former political secretary Julian Law Wing-chung, a former news editor at the respected Ming Pao newspaper who is credited as the brains behind Tsang’s slick PR operation.
In it, Law thanks Tsang for being an open boss, willing to listen to dissenting opinions and also for “giving us an opportunity to dream”. The dream, he says, is that whatever the outcome of Sunday’s election, any political leader from now on will have to make a concerted effort to win Hong Kong citizens’ support and approval.
Hong Kong’s democratic struggle
Hongkongers have long struggled to achieve their dream of representative government, and the outcome of the March 26 election will not resolve the territory’s lack of democracy. Whoever wins, it will be up to Hongkongers to continue making their voices heard, to keep making their preferences known, whether it’s for their leaders, legislators or the policies that affect their daily life.
Even without full democracy, they can make full use of the limited representation they have, the relative press freedom that still exists and the independent courts to defend what they have, and work towards gaining more.
But in order to do so, they will have to be able to see through the spin and not blindly fall for sophisticated PR stunts. They will also have to weigh up the relative merits of standing their ground in the push for full democracy in the face of an intransigent Beijing, against a more pragmatic approach that seeks gradual progress within existing limitations.
At their recent 30th anniversary concert, Hong Kong pop duo Tat Ming Pair performed a number involving dancers wearing masks bearing the likenesses of Tsang, Lam and Woo. They followed it with a rendition of the late David Bowie’s hit song Heroes.
“We can’t rely on heroes to save us,” said lead singer Anthony Wong. “The one that gets elected in a few days’ time won’t be your hero either. Each of us has to be our own hero.”
Yuen Chan is Senior Lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.