A new year is supposed to bring fresh thinking and renewed hope, so let’s go out on a far limb and dare to imagine that the central government’s ham-fisted, counterproductive management of Hong Kong affairs will change in the Year of the Rooster. After all, the evidence shows manifestly that it is way past time for a rethink.

Ask any respectable, independent-minded local geomancer and he or she will tell you that the Year of the Monkey ended badly for Chinese officials still striving, nearly 20 years after the handover from British rule, to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people. And this next year won’t be any better as long as the liaison office continues its naked interference in Hong Kong affairs.

The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP.

It may sound paradoxical and counterintuitive, but the more forcefully Beijing exercises its power over the city, the less real authority it has with the people of Hong Kong, most of whom instinctively turn away from the kind of manipulation and, when that doesn’t work, outright bullying that are commonplace across the border.

Look no further for a case in point than the misfortunes suffered by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor since she resigned as chief secretary earlier this month and announced her candidacy for chief executive. Immediately anointed by the media as Beijing’s golden girl and thus the favoured candidate for the job, the longtime civil servant quickly found herself running behind her closest rival, former finance minister John Tsang Chun-wah, in public opinion polls and wide open to attack by her lesser opponents, the insuppressible Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing.

And Lam’s popularity deficit promises to increase the more she leans on her Beijing backers and the more liaison office officials lean on Hong Kong politicians and members of the Election Committee to support her. Indeed—and this point is not made facetiously—the central government and its representatives in the city are viewed with such distrust that Chinese leaders might have greater influence and success throwing their support behind the candidate they want to lose rather than the one they favour.

Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

Whenever Lam plays the Beijing card, she takes a beating. Almost single-handedly bringing the Palace Museum to the West Kowloon Cultural District, for example, was supposed to show how her decisive leadership and connections to the north could deliver spectacular results for Hong Kong. Instead, however, there were stories about her arrogance in disregarding the usual checks and balances for such a project and refusing to consult public opinion before sealing the deal.

Lam again laid an egg when she recently told a group of media executives behind closed doors that she decided to run for chief executive because she feared that, without her in the contest, a candidate unacceptable to the central government could win the election, sparking a constitutional crisis. Her leaked comments were then interpreted as a veiled attack on Tsang, who is rumoured to have run through a “red light” flashing at the liaison office in announcing his candidacy but nevertheless outpolls Lam with the public.

Lam’s camp has since claimed the reported leaks are inaccurate, and Lam herself has apologised for any “misunderstanding.” Whatever the case, Lam’s perceived closeness to Beijing again makes her the loser and Tsang the winner in this particular story.

Photo: FactWire.

In another media vignette, Lam’s attempt to humanise herself by abandoning her chauffeur-driven car in favour of the MTR also failed to work to her advantage as we could all plainly see that she did not know how to swipe her Octopus card so as to pass through the turnstile. Her midnight toilet paper woes at her new digs in Wan Chai also fell flat.

So it is not just Beijing that is responsible for Lam’s bad start as a chief executive contender; the candidate herself bears some of the blame.

Still, granting Lam’s self-inflicted wounds, it seems obvious in today’s Hong Kong that central government support is more of an albatross than a lucky charm for any chief executive candidate.

Tung Chee-hwa.

The city’s first post-handover chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was greatly aided by Beijing’s helping hand, as was his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Things got decidedly strange in the 2012 election, however, when the Chinese leadership’s pick, Henry Tang Ying-yen, was done in by revelations of extra-marital affairs and the illegally built 2,400-square-foot basement in his Kowloon Tong home, allowing underdog Leung Chun-ying to win.

Leung then became Beijing’s man in Hong Kong, loyally performing every obeisance asked of him while further dividing the city and making himself so unpopular that even his Chinese handlers abandoned him in the end, forcing his decision not to seek reelection.

Following the five-year Leung debacle, Lam is supposed to step in and save the day for Beijing—but it’s not going to happen.

It’s worth remembering that—although she is currently maligned as an aloof bureaucrat out of touch with ordinary people—Lam was once Hong Kong’s most popular minister and also one of its most able. But as chief secretary under Leung she was trotted out to defend every unpopular Leung initiative and Beijing diktat, including the suffocating 2014 edict on political reform issued by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which spawned the 79-day Occupy protest.

File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Now Lam is seen as just another marionette whose strings are being pulled in Beijing. Her critics mock her as “CY 2.0.”

Which brings us back to the point: If Chinese leaders truly want what’s best for their interests and for the interests of the people of Hong Kong, they should take their sticky fingers out of the chief executive election and start living up to the “one country, two systems” handover agreement.

In the end, what are they worried about?

They have successfully set up a system that allows only those loyal to the Chinese leadership to win, and none of the four announced candidates for chief executive have said or done anything to suggest that they would question Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong or in any way undermine the authority of the central government.

Why not just let them compete?

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.