Leadership hopeful Woo Kwok-hing has hit back at accusations by media mogul Jimmy Lai that he is a “secret agent” helping Beijing to weaken support for rival John Tsang in the election.

Lai, founder of Apple Daily, wrote in the pro-democracy paper on Sunday warning that Woo might have joined the race with the intention to “snatch votes from another candidate” – believed to be John Tsang, who enjoys popularity among pro-democracy supporters.

Jimmy Lai. File Photo: Todd Darling.

“Vote-snatching” refers to the use of fake candidates to divide support for target candidates running on a similar platform. The pro-democracy camp has for years alleged that pro-Beijing forces use the tactic against it.

Lai supported his allegation with the fact that Woo’s son is a member of China’s top political advisory body and a satellite body of the China Liaison Office, Beijing’s organ in Hong Kong.

He added that a campaigner for Woo previously worked for pro-Beijing lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, and that Woo used to work at the law firm of his uncle David Tang Kwok-keung, who has close ties to Chinese trade groups.

“More suspiciously, Woo is a timid character, and suddenly he is going against his background and his past by becoming pro-democracy,” Lai wrote. “We must not blindly treat him as a pan-democrat.”

Woo Kwok-hing met with protesters. Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Lai went on to criticise lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung and law professor Benny Tai for being too idealistic and oblivious to the political reality that “Beijing definitely has plans to weaken support for a candidate.”

“I believe authoritarian politics is very dirty, and politicians will do everything to achieve their goals,” he said.


Lai is not the only one who has made the allegation against Woo. The theory has been circulated on social media for weeks. Meanwhile, some people – such as writer Li Pik-Wah – have called on Woo to drop out of the race on the basis that he has no chance of winning.

Woo hit back at Lai on Sunday, describing the accusation based on his family background as “baloney.”

“Launching personal attacks against someone based on the people close to that person is a strategy used during the Cultural Revolution,” the retired judge wrote on social media.

Woo Kwok-hing. File Photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

Woo and some analysts previously said “vote-snatching” is not possible in the chief executive election, whereby a candidate must secure at least 600 out of 1,200 votes to win the election.

If all candidates receive fewer than 600 votes in the first round, only two candidates with the most votes will be allowed to remain in the second round of voting.

“No one can say for sure what will happen in two weeks [during the vote]. The only thing that is certain is that Mr. Tsang and I have been working hard to persuade pro-establishment electors to switch support from Lam,” Woo said.

“I am trying to secure – not snatch – as many votes as possible. Similarly, I wouldn’t accuse Mr. Tsang of snatching votes off me,” he added. “Every candidate has the responsibility to try their best to gain public support… How can this be considered a bad thing?”

Lawmaker Elizabeth Quat also responded to Lai on social media, denying knowledge of the work of Woo’s campaigner since she left Quat’s office.

Hon Lin-shan

In his widely circulated commentary, Lai also criticised Apple Daily’s opinion page editors, calling them “naive” for running commentaries by retired teacher and pro-democracy activist James Hon Lin-shan, whom he claimed is “obviously a secret agent of the Chinese Communist Party.”

James Hon Lin-shan. File Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

Hon subsequently rejected the allegation in an op-ed to Stand News, criticising Lai for “going crazy just to lend support to a pro-establishment figure [John Tsang].”

Last month, Woo received 180 nominations, all of which came from pro-democracy electors. In comparison, Tsang received 160 nominations mostly from the pro-democracy camp, with a few from pro-establishment figures.

A third candidate is former chief secretary Carrie Lam, who received 588 nominations. The small-circle chief executive election takes place on March 26.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.