On a 25-metre (80-foot) billboard outside Hong Kong’s busiest cross-harbour tunnel in Hung Hom, former TV news anchor Chan Hoi-yan’s glowing face and bouncy ponytail looms over a steady stream of vehicles and a construction site for new flats.
The 40-year-old is in a tracksuit and poised in a running position on the giant poster, which has been up for a week and is funded by pro-Beijing group Kowloon Federation of Associations (KFA).
In 2013, the billboard’s monthly rent was listed online as HK$248,000 (US$31,800) but KFA did not reply to queries on how much it was paying and how long it would rent the space for.
The pricey ad seems to all but officially confirm the pro-establishment camp’s backing of Chan to run in the November 25 Legislative Council by-election for the vacant seat in Kowloon West.
Former pro-democracy lawmaker Lau Siu-lai was ousted from the seat last year when a Hong Kong court ruled she failed to take her oath of office properly.
Sources say the camp has decided to support election novice Chan, who is a former political assistant to popular ex-health minister Ko Wing-man. It believes her background and health knowledge will endear her to a wider audience.
They also hope Ko, originally their first choice to contest the poll, will boost Chan’s appeal with his “celebrity standing”. This is even though a more established candidate – Business and Professionals Alliance’s Scott Leung Man-kwong, a district councillor for Sham Shui Po – has expressed his interest in the seat.
“With only three months left for the whole campaign, it is important for the candidate to be equipped with a basic level of popularity,” a source in the pro-establishment camp said.
Asked on Friday if she was a member of KFA, Chan merely said: “No, I’m their health ambassador.”
On the sidelines of a health talk organised by the city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, Chan said she had allowed KFA to use her photo for banners but had no input on the number produced and their placement.
The billboard has sparked a small controversy.
Critics insist the rental cost should be included in Chan’s declaration of campaign expenses, should she become a candidate.
Election rules dictate that those running for a Legco seat in the Kowloon West constituency are allowed to spend a maximum of HK$1.82 million on expenses. But expenditure is only calculated from the time a candidate publicly declares “an intention to stand for election”.
Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said it was a “sensitive” time for the billboard to be up given the election was just months away.
“It opens one up to suspicions. If she was really just a health ambassador, running a few laps and attending one or two media events, I don’t think anyone would care.”
Lau, who has indicated she might attempt to reclaim her old seat, complained that the banner – along with others featuring Chan and various pro-establishment district councillors across Kowloon West – showed the extent of the political machinery behind Chan.
“They have thrown in a large amount of resources, which the pro-democracy camp cannot afford.”
But roadside banners showing Lau and another possible candidate, Labour Party former lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, have also been sighted in areas such as Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po.
Lau also held a fundraising dinner earlier this month for her Democracy Groundwork organisation and claimed it had nothing to do with the election.
Three of the five other seats in Kowloon West are filled by pro-Beijing lawmakers and if the camp gets this fourth seat, it will cement its hold over an area that just two years ago in the 2016 Legco election, gave 57 per cent of votes to pan-democrat candidates.
Polytechnic University assistant professor Chung Kim-wah said the large billboard could be counterproductive despite Chan’s popularity, as the large-scale promotion might make voters inclined to support Lau.
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung
This article Billboard outside Hong Kong tunnel sparks controversy in run-up to Legislative Council by-election first appeared on South China Morning Post
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