HONG KONG -- After 150 years of having governors appointed by the Colonial Office in London, Hong Kong is getting set to elect its top leader.
The election campaign is happening only as it could in this place caught between colonialism and communism. There are no posters or rallies. There are no polling places.
Yet three candidates -- two billionaires and a retired judge -- are touring the territory, kissing babies, delivering speeches and making political promises.
The reason for the stealth election is simple. The candidates are not running to appeal to Hong Kong's 6 million residents, but to win over a "selection committee" of 400 people approved by China.
Made up of Hong Kong residents picked by Beijing for their reliability, the committee is to select Hong Kong's chief executive tomorrow.
The chief executive will replace the British governor July 1 as the colony's top leader. During his five-year term, he will have immense power, subject only to Beijing's approval.
Shipping tycoon C. H. Tung is all but assured of victory. During a preliminary round of voting in November, Tung beat seven opponents, winning 206 of 400 votes. Only the margin of victory remains in doubt in the final round.
"It's the Beijing-screened committee selecting the Beijing-endorsed candidate," said Ming K. Chan, a University of Hong Kong historian. "Mr. Tung will be crowned on Wednesday, not elected."
Nonetheless, Tung's selection is a turning point in Hong Kong's transition to Chinese rule. Tung will be the first Chinese to run the international financial and shipping center.
It will be up to him to keep Hong Kong's democrats satisfied with the limited freedoms China has pledged, while convincing China that Hong Kong is loyal enough to deserve the autonomy it has been promised.
Curiously, the 59-year-old Tung is little known in Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong people don't know Tung very well," said Daisy Li, a senior editor at one of Hong Kong's biggest newspapers, Ming Pao. "He doesn't have a track record of serving the Hong Kong government on its advisory panels."
Tung's strength is a web of relationships that he cemented in Hong Kong -- and China -- when his father's shipping company collapsed 10 years ago.
Once one of the world's top five shipping firms, Orient Overseas was hit by a worldwide shipping glut and was rescued only after intricate negotiations with 100 banks around the world. It remains a company with $1.7 billion a year in revenues and Tung's family is worth well over $1 billion.
In his hour of need, one of Tung's biggest benefactors was
Cosco, the state-owned Chinese shipping company that reportedly lent him $120 million. Critics say the loan shows Tung is beholden to Beijing, but others say that misses point.
"He didn't just work with the Chinese. He painstakingly placated nTC 100 banks from all over the world," said David Dodwell, director of Warren Williams International, a think tank that has worked with Tung on trade issues. "He had to crawl on his knees across hot ashes for six months."
The result, Dodwell said, is that Hong Kong's and China's elites trust Tung.
Tung has furthered his chances by making statements bound to please China's stability-minded rulers.
Hong Kong, long a haven for every Chinese political pressure group over the past century, should no longer allow organizations that push for Tibetan or Taiwanese independence, Tung has said.
He also has called the Democrats, the most popular political grouping in Hong Kong, "extremists," leading some to wonder just how tough Tung will be in standing up for Hong Kong's freedoms.
"He'll stand firm for Hong Kong's economic interests, but politically I don't think so -- not because he's a coward but because he doesn't see this as one of Hong Kong's interests," Li said.
Tung's challengers are two better-known figures. One is Peter Woo, the 50-year-old former head of Wharf Holdings, one of Hong Kong's biggest conglomerates. The other is Yang Ti Liang, 67, the former chief justice of Hong Kong's Supreme Court.
Woo, who attended university in the United States, launched an American-style publicity blitz last month, prompting the other two to follow suit.
Yang is the gentlemen's candidate, a quiet, understated man whose campaign staff of four volunteers works out of the Marriott Hotel's business center.
In an interview, the former chief justice said he was free of the taipans -- the small group of billionaires and millionaires who dominate Hong Kong's economy -- who might actually stand behind Tung and Woo.
Albert Cheng, host of the popular radio call-in show "Teacup in a Tempest," said media coverage of the campaign had been superficial but had allowed the public to express disapproval of unpopular candidates.
Two hard-line pro-China candidates, for example, dropped out of the race after their approval ratings didn't budge out of single digits.
Still, the public has been at best a passive participant, he said.
"We just watch it like a circus when it comes to town," Cheng said. "You may laugh and clap your hands, but are you participating?"
Chan, the historian, said the process of choosing Hong Kong's new leader had lent "the illusion of community involvement" while giving Beijing the peace of mind of knowing that no unacceptable candidate will be chosen.
China recently hailed the selection process, indicating that future decisions will be made in a similar fashion.
But Yang, the retired judge, said he hoped Wednesday's selection marks just the first step toward universal suffrage, a goal China has promised Hong Kong.
"We are not aiming at full-fledged democracy at this point in our history but at some point in the future," Yang said.
"If you just give up because your chances are not good, then you'll give credence to the skeptics who say it is all chosen by Beijing. The only right thing is to go through with it. To do your duty."
Pub Date: 12/10/96