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 following a campaign marred by scandal and public discontent at perceived interference by Beijing.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is a freewheeling capitalist hub enjoying a high degree of autonomy and freedom, but Beijing’s Communist Party leaders have resisted public pressure for full democracy.
Hong Kong’s seven million people have no say in who becomes their chief executive.
Instead, an 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.
Leung’s main rival, Henry Tang, got 285 votes.
Several dozen protesters inside the voting venue erupted in shouted and jeered as the result was announced.
“We want direct elections immediately” they chanted.
Outside, up to 2,000 protesters, some who camped out overnight, yelled slogans, waved banners to show their anger at being denied a voice.
“We demand universal suffrage right now,” said Daisy Chan, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
Compared with previous chief executive elections, this one was marked by scandal and mud-slinging between the two main candidates and it also brought into the spotlight China’s extensive influence over political affairs.
Leung is a self-made Hong Kong-born surveyor with deep China connections and a reputation as a tough political operator. Tang is the affluent scion of an industrialist and a former civil service chief.
Tang was widely seen early on as the Beijing-backed candidate but his image was dented by revelations of a love affair and a scandal over illegal construction at his villa.
That was enough to apparently to convince Beijing to switch its backing to Leung.
“Somehow Tang has managed to blow a fixed election,” said a Western diplomat in Hong Kong.
Many dismayed residents had demanded a fresh election with new candidates. Underlining the frustration, most of more than 200,000 people said they would abstain if given the chance to vote, according to a University of Hong Kong poll.
“It isn’t as if there aren’t capable people, there are plenty of capable, committed people,” said Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s respected former civil service chief dubbed the city’s “conscience”.
“As long as central government continues to place more emphasis on control ... on somebody in their own camp, I don’t think we’re going to see the right leader emerging.” Liberal Party’s James Tien said.
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”.
Beijing has promised to allow a direct election for the city’s leader in 2017 but for the time being, China’s Communist Party leaders and the city’s tycoons exert a high degree of control over politics.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong 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.
Leung, 57, is a self-made Hong Kong-born surveyor with deep China connections and a reputation as a tough political operator with a more innovative policy vision.
He has also been dogged by accusations of being a Communist Party member, which he denies.
“For this election, everyone feels the influence of Beijing is very heavy,” said political analyst Johnny Lau 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 said.
(This story has been refiled to replace an earlier version which was filed by the Online Desk by mistake)
Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn, Carmen Ng and Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Robert Birsel