New leader for divided Hong Kong as China looks on

AFP , Sunday 26 Mar 2017

Carrie Lam
A yellow umbrella, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, is displayed in front of Carrie Lam as she is announced the winner of the election for Hong Kong's next Chief Executive in Hong Kong, China March 26, 2017. Next to her are two other candidates John Tsang and Woo Kwok-hing. (REUTERS)

A pro-China committee will choose a new leader for Hong Kong Sunday to take the helm of a deeply divided city that is fearful Beijing is squeezing its freedoms.

The vote comes after an unprecedented five years of anti-China protests under current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who is seen by opponents as a Beijing puppet and will step down in July.

Hong Kong is semi-autonomous and has been governed under a "one country, two systems" deal since it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

But, 20 years on, there are serious concerns Beijing is disregarding the handover agreement designed to protect Hong Kong's way of life.

Frustration among activists at what they see as China's increasing influence and a lack of promised political reform has sparked calls for self-determination for Hong Kong, or even a complete split from China.

Sunday's election is forecast to usher in another divisive leader -- Leung's former deputy Carrie Lam.

Lam is widely seen as Beijing's favourite for the job and would become Hong Kong's first ever woman chief executive.

But she is intensely disliked by the pro-democracy camp after she promoted the Beijing-backed reform package that sparked 2014's massive "Umbrella Movement" protests calling for fully free leadership elections.

That plan said the public could choose the city leader in 2017, but insisted candidates must be vetted first.

It was eventually voted down in parliament by pro-democracy lawmakers.

With no further progress on reform, Sunday's vote will be carried out by committee, as it has been since Hong Kong was handed back to China.

Representatives of a broad number of sectors, from business to education, sit on the 1,194-strong committee, but only a quarter are from the democracy camp.

The vast majority of the 3.8 million electorate have no say in the vote.

Pro-democracy committee members say they will throw their weight behind Lam's main rival candidate, ex-finance secretary John Tsang, seen as a more moderate establishment figure.

But activists say he is still on the side of Beijing and reject the vote outright, promising to protest outside the harbourfront voting venue Sunday.

The new leader will face an uphill struggle to unite a city in which young people in particular have lost faith not only in the political system but in their overall prospects.

With salaries too low to meet the cost of property in an overpriced market fuelled by mainland money, getting ahead in life is seen as increasingly difficult.

Lam says she will try to build consensus by focusing on social issues, including poverty and housing.

But critics say she is dodging the bigger political picture.

They fear Lam is "Leung 2.0" and will pave the way for Beijing to extend its influence.

That anxiety comes off the back of a number of incidents under Leung that have rocked public confidence.

They include the disappearance in 2015 of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing salacious titles about China's political elite. The booksellers all resurfaced in detention on the mainland.

Last year, the disqualification from parliament of two publicly elected pro-independence lawmakers following a Beijing intervention also prompted accusations the city's legislature had been seriously compromised.

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