HONG KONG (AP) — A committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites chose Hong Kong’s next leader Sunday in the first vote since huge pro-democracy protests erupted over the election system in 2014.
Carrie Lam, the government’s former No. 2 official and Beijing’s favored candidate, received 777 votes and will become the first female leader for the city and its fourth since British colonial control ended in 1997.
China’s Communist leadership had lobbied behind the scenes for Lam, so her victory came as no surprise. After the votes were counted, Lam bowed to the crowd and shook hands with second-place finisher, former finance secretary John Tsang, who received 365 votes.
Some pro-democracy supporters in the official seating area yelled slogans and held up a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the 2014 protests, as the results were announced. The elite election committee was at the root of the protests as activists decried the lack of a direct choice by Hong Kong’s 3.8 million registered voters.
Lam is an efficient and pragmatic administrator but unpopular with Hong Kongers because she’s seen as a proxy for Beijing and out of touch with ordinary people. Tsang, in contrast, is highly popular because of his easygoing persona and deft use of social media. He has been nicknamed “Pringles” or “Uncle Chips” in Cantonese for his signature mustache that draws comparisons to the snack food mascot and his followers call themselves “small potatoes.”
The third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, had 21 votes.
As the next leader of the Asian financial center, Lam will inherit a city split by political divisions and saddled with sluggish economic growth. Many fear that Beijing is tightening control and undermining the “one country, two systems” framework that guarantees Hong Kong high autonomy. Those fears have been amplified by cases in recent years such as five booksellers secretly detained on the mainland and a Chinese tycoon’s mysterious disappearance.
Lam’s ability to soothe tensions relies on how much public support she can gain.
“My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustrations and to unite our society to move forward,” she said.
“As a chief executive I have that duty to speak up on behalf of the Hong Kong people and also to try to address these concerns of our fellow citizens.”
Lam will succeed current leader Leung Chun-ying, who citing family reasons when he ruled out a second term. Political analysts suspect Beijing asked Leung, a highly polarizing figure, to step aside for someone better liked.
Members of the Hong Kong’s election committee include tycoons like Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest person. They represent industry and trade groups such as finance, accounting, real estate and textiles. Most support China’s communist leaders and are expected to vote according to their wishes.
Hong Kong lawmakers, local councilors and delegates to China’s parliament also have votes and some 326 seats, mostly in the education, legal, health and social welfare sectors, are held by pro-democracy supporters.
Lam said she would not immediately revive attempts to revamp the electoral system, a potential political flashpoint that could rekindle protests by pro-democracy supporters. She said she wanted to focus on other more pressing issues.
Story: Kelvin Chan