HONG KONG - Political mayhem has broken out in Hong Kong, and has caught China's government, already in the midst of a delicate political transition of its own, completely unprepared.
The 1,200 privileged delegates carefully screened by China to 'elect' Hong Kong's next Chief Executive (CE) on March 25 would normally take their cues from China's rulers. Indeed, the original electoral script was a one-act, one-star play.
Henry Tang, unkindly nicknamed 'Pig' by the Hong Kong press for his unimpressive intellect, and a heretofore supporting actor, C. Y. Leung, nicknamed 'Wolf' for his perceived chilly ruthlessness, were the entire cast.
Both men have impeccable pro-China credentials, a prerequisite to becoming CE. While there is a third, pro-democracy, candidate standing somewhere in the wings, he doesn't stand a chance, because China would never allow him to get the 601 votes needed to win.
Tang, the preferred candidate of the local business elite and the civil service he once headed, promises to preserve the status quo, which is music to the ears of Hong Kong's 'haves.' But a plot twist has complicated his shoo-in campaign, with both Tang and Leung now improvising their lines - peppered with frequent insults - and each consulting the director (China) at every turn.
At the same time, the audience, the people of Hong Kong, are howling, hissing, and throwing bottles at everyone on stage - and sometimes at each other. So, what was supposed to be a boring bit of set-piece theater has become a sensational hit.
Tang, the mild-mannered scion of a textile magnate whose father is a confidant of China's former leader, Jiang Zemin, committed two elementary mistakes. The first was not confessing quickly enough to his having mistresses, one of whom has a college-age offspring whose father is probably Tang. Of course, Hong Kong's citizens are far from being puritans, and the sex lives of their leaders are not a primary concern. But they also understand that anyone running for office should have been prepared for such revelations.
Tang was not. Instead, it was left to the tabloids to reveal his mistresses, one by one, week after week, like peeling an onion in front of his wife, Hong Kong's people, and the Chinese leadership.
The second error was even more inane. Local papers discovered that he had illegally built a large, deluxe wine cellar with a spa beneath one of his mansions. As a senior public servant, he knew that the construction was illegal, and that he should have taken remedial steps to legalise his actions or to abandon it - a matter merely of money, of which he has plenty.
To everyone's disbelief, Tang insisted that he did not have a wine cellar, just a storage room. Then he trotted out his already-humiliated wife, half in tears, to face the press, blaming her for building the cellar without his prior knowledge while 'gallantly' assuming responsibility.
Tang's popularity sank, and headed towards single digits. If China still insists on anointing him, more mayhem is likely to follow.
Leung, however, is also a deeply divisive figure - a man who comes across as someone waiting to settle scores, though no one really knows which ones. Hong Kong's tycoons, press, intelligentsia, and civil servants, who normally agree on little, find themselves in complete agreement where Leung is concerned: they do not want him as Hong Kong's next leader, despite his favourable popularity ratings.
The tycoons fear that Leung's deeply old-fashioned communist values would hurt their oligopolies. The press finds him evasive. The intelligentsia is wary of him as an underground Communist Party member, something that he has denied. And civil servants believe that Leung harbours resentment of Hong Kong's British colonial legacy, of which the civil service is the most visible.
Not even senior Communist officials in charge of the Hong Kong portfolio wanted Leung, despite his being a suspected 'sleeper' cadre in the territory. Locally recruited members do not enjoy seniority in the 70-million-strong Chinese Communist Party. So, if Leung became Hong Kong's CE, he would jump ahead of many of his seniors in China.
To complicate China's predicament further, Hong Kong's next leader will assume office tainted by retiring CE Donald Tsang's undignified and possibly corrupt links with the city's tycoons. The press calls him the 'petty greedy CE.' Some legislators have called for his impeachment before he leaves office.
Tsang has been a beneficiary of favours by some of Hong Kong's second-tier billionaires who run regulated businesses, such as radio stations and the cross-harbour tunnels. Sir Donald enjoys riding on their private jets and luxury yachts while on personal holidays abroad. Before he was shamed into giving it up, he rented a triplex penthouse for his retirement, leased to him at below-market rates by a wealthy businessman, who reportedly threw in a couple of million dollars worth of interior decoration.
Hong Kong's citizens expect their leader to be a fair arbiter of conflicting public and private interests, not an obsequious toady to the rich. But the most pathetic aspect of Tsang's behaviour is his failure to understand that Hong Kong's rich, whose company he pathologically craved to keep, respect only those who are richer, smarter, and perhaps more ruthless than they are. They despise those who lack serious money and can be seduced by breadcrumbs.
Deng Xiaoping promised 'one country, two systems' as he negotiated Hong Kong's return to China three decades ago. But, because China has never succeeded in overcoming its inner control freak, it has backed leaders who are incompetent, corruptible, or universally feared and scorned. Hong Kong's upcoming 'election' will be no different.
Sin-ming Shaw, a former fellow at Oxford University, is an investor based in Asia and Argentina.