A newly created post of chief convenor of the Election Committee in Hong Kong’s political shake-up has sparked questions over whether a new power centre could emerge as a pro-Beijing heavyweight said the official would have “transcendent” status above the chief executive.
However, Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body, on Wednesday said that high status was needed for the chief convenor to represent the central government in solving any problems that could arise during elections.
He would act only as a gatekeeper during polls, Tam stressed. He maintained that the chief convenor, who has to be a state leader, would not have a say in local governance.
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Currently, Hong Kong has only two such leaders, Tung Chee-hwa and Leung Chun-ying, both former chief executives who serve as vice-chairmen of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and Tam said it was clear one of them would fill the position.
The new role is part of sweeping changes to the city’s electoral system approved by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee on Tuesday. The proposal empowers the Election Committee – originally tasked with picking the chief executive – with the right to nominate all candidates aspiring to be lawmakers and elect 40 representatives of its own to the Legislative Council.
For the first time in Hong Kong’s history, the now 1,500-strong committee will be at the centre of all key elections and will be led by a chief convenor, as set out in Annex I of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
The new role sparked questions as to the exact duties of the chief convenor, and whether he or she would enjoy the power to overrule the chief executive.
While several commentators agreed with Tam’s assessment that the chief convenor would play an administrative role during elections, others said the stature and inclinations of the person occupying the position could also shape the position.
Another said the new role revealed Beijing’s distrust of Election Committee members, as they now required a “school monitor” to keep them in line.
Tam, the city’s only delegate to the NPC Standing Committee and who took part in approving the changes, said the chief convenor would only weigh in when there were “emergency issues” with an election that local laws could not resolve.
“The convenor could help with gatekeeping. In the past, we needed the NPC Standing Committee to solve election-related issues, but now the convenor will take up the role and discuss with committee members when election problems arise, without going through the standing committee,” Tam told the Post.
“The chief convenor has to be some state-level leader. Their status is more transcendent than the chief executive, as they are representing the central government. That’s why they are suitable to take up the role of overseeing problems for the Election Committee.”
Tam said no one could tell what the “emergency issues” might be at this stage, but they would have to be extreme situations that could not be solved by local laws, such as the city failing to elect a chief executive.
Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing, said if the city failed to elect a chief executive, for instance, the convenor might have to step in and arrange for a second round of election.
He said the post was created because Beijing would need someone to coordinate matters under the newly introduced system, now much more intertwined with mainland-affiliated organisations.
Yet both Tian and Tam shrugged off suggestions that the new arrangement would either enable the convenor to hold sway over the committee in its choice of the chief executive or influence his work.
Tian said the convenor would remain one of the 1,500 members in the committee, so the result of the polls would be a collective decision.
He said the convenor would not have the power to appoint the chief executive in the case of a tie or an unclear outcome.
Tam added: “The convenor would certainly not be involved in the governance of Hong Kong, and would only deal with election-related matters.
“It must be either Tung or Leung, but there is also no urgency to disclose who is taking up the role at this moment. The central government just wants to make sure there is such a system in place.”
Tam acknowledged that such a “superior position” did not exist in the past, and that the central government intended the role to serve as a “safeguard” against uncertainties.
Under the amended Annex I of the Basic Law, the convenor will chair meetings of the Election Committee and appoint sub-convenors in each of its five sectors.
“There could be one or two sub-convenors appointed by the chief convenor in each sector. These would be people who are highly recognised in their sector, and would follow up on issues that concern the members,” Tam elaborated, saying these lieutenants would help share the chief convenor’s workload.
Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yiu-siu suspected, however, that the creation of the role could be due to Beijing’s wish to control all possibilities, including how the new Election Committee members would act.
“Beijing may fear that some of them may not be loyal enough or there may be unexpected turns of events. That’s why a ‘school monitor’ is needed to keep things in place,” he said.
Political watcher and academic Bruce Lui Ping-kuen said the amended Annex I of the Basic Law left room for the convenor to manoeuvre as it stated the person in the position would be responsible for holding committee meetings and “relevant matters”.
Lui said the personality of the chief convenor could have a bearing in how he exerted his role and influence.
Without naming former chief executive Leung, he noted how leaders had used their own platforms to criticise the government. Leung has been known to be outspoken on government policies, critiquing a wide-range of issues from education to fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
Such comments had “reduced the incumbent chief executive’s image”, Lui said.
But on Tuesday, city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor dismissed concerns her power would be undermined, saying the convenor’s powers would only kick in during elections, and even then, only under very exceptional circumstances.
“During normal periods of governance, this convenor system ... has absolutely no role in the governance of Hong Kong. It certainly will not have any influence over the chief executive or the principal officials,” she said.