HONG KONG (Reuters) - An election committee of about 1,200 Hong Kong notables picked Beijing-loyalist Leung Chun-ying as the city’s next leader on Sunday, after a fraught campaign which will intensify pressure on China to keeps its promise to allow Hong Kong a direct leadership election in 2017.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is a freewheeling capitalist hub which enjoys a high degree of autonomy and freedom, but Beijing’s Communist Party leaders have resisted public pressure for full democracy.
The city’s seven million people have no say in who becomes their chief executive, a selection process which was marked by uncommonly high levels of public discontent at perceived interference by China.
Several dozen protesters inside the voting venue erupted in jeers and stood on chairs as the result was announced.
“We want direct elections immediately,” they chanted.
Outside, up to 2,000 protesters, some of whom had camped out overnight, yelled slogans and waved banners to show their anger at being denied a voice. “Leung Chun-ying resign, Leung Chun-ying resign,” they yelled.
Many spun colorful little flying discs into the air to symbolize a need to fling off such “small circle” polls.
Speaking after his win, the leader-elect who takes over from bow tie-wearing Donald Tsang, said he would work to ensure this is the last time an elite committee votes for a Hong Kong leader, pledging his commitment to direct elections in five years.
“I shall work with the whole of Hong Kong in the next five years to make sure that the 2017 universal suffrage chief executive election will work well.”
Leung said he faced a daunting task, but added that he wanted to ease tensions while reaffirming the rule of law, human rights and freedoms.
“During the heat of the campaign, inevitably, passions were roused and strong remarks made,” said Leung, showing little visible emotion after his win.
“Now that the contest is over, it is time to reunite, we must work in unison to be inclusive ... and once again instill positive energy into our community,” Leung told reporters even as protesters tried to shout him down from outside the room.
Compared with previous chief executive elections in which a Beijing-backed frontrunner coasted into office, this one was marked by scandal and mud-slinging between the two main candidates.
It also brought into the spotlight the influence China’s Communist Party leaders have over Hong Kong politics.
Henry Tang, the scion of a wealthy industrialist and a former head of the civil service, was widely seen early on as the Beijing-backed candidate, but his image was damaged by revelations of a love affair and a scandal over illegal construction at a family-owned villa.
That appeared to be enough to convince China to switch its allegiance to Leung, and lobby election committee members for votes. “Somehow Tang has managed to blow a fixed election,” said a Western diplomat in Hong Kong, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Leung, 57, has been dogged by accusations of being a Communist Party member, which he denies.
He is a Hong Kong-born surveyor with deep Chinese connections and a reputation as a tough political operator with a more innovative policy vision, including building cheaper public housing.
Many dismayed residents demanded a fresh election with new candidates. Underlining their frustration, most of more than 200,000 people surveyed said they would abstain if given the chance to vote, according to a University of Hong Kong poll.
“This is the most blatant interference by Beijing into the domestic affairs of Hong Kong ... causing damage to the one country, two systems policy,” said Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho, who also stood for election but won only 76 votes.
Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula with a promise of full democracy as an “ultimate aim”.
Though that has not been achieved, it remains a beacon of democratic reform and civil liberties in China, which wants to see the self-ruled island of Taiwan reunited with the mainland, perhaps under a similar formula.
The election committee, filled with business professionals, tycoons and Beijing loyalists, selected Leung with 689 of 1,132 votes cast as successor to the bow tie-wearing Donald Tsang, who cannot stand again.
Tang, Leung’s main rival, got 285 votes.
“For this election, everyone feels the influence of Beijing is very heavy,” said political analyst Johnny Lau, speaking inside the harbor-front convention centre where the vote was held. “(Leung) has created an aura of being a Chinese emperor that will make it more difficult to lead politically.”
“This election has caused great divisions. His ability to gather public support will be quite weak because these frustrations have accumulated over many years,” Lau added.
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn, Carmen Ng and Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Daniel Magnowski