China appears to hedge bets in Hong Kong election

Hong Kong Chief Executive candidates Leung Chun-ying (L) and Henry Tang (R).

Days before Hong Kong selects its next leader, China may have turned its back on presumed front-runner Henry Tang as a tide of public discontent over a scandal-tainted race threatens street protests and the prospect of a re-election.

Unlike other leadership transitions since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, scandals and mud-slinging between two of the leading contenders for "chief executive" have shaken the capitalist hub and exposed some of its longstanding struggles under Chinese control.

Hong Kong has enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy since the handover and Communist Party rulers in Beijing promised it full democracy as an "ultimate aim".

But its people still have no direct say in electing their next leader, who will be chosen on Sunday by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

With China itself facing a critical leadership transition later in the year, the Hong Kong scandals have come as an unwelcome and poorly timed distraction.

Tang was once widely considered Beijing's preferred candidate for the top job, but political sources and the media have suggested a shift in allegiance to his rival, Leung Chun-ying, especially from more hardline leftist factions of China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong that has traditionally held sway over how Beijing handles the city's affairs.

Tang has been tarnished by an illegal construction scandal and self-confessed marital infidelities, while Leung faces a conflict of interest probe connected to a construction project and accusations of running a dirty election campaign.

Liu Yandong, a member of China's decision-making Politburo with key responsibility over Hong Kong, visited the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen this week to lobby election committee members for Leung, according to media reports.

"It is definitely a fact that the China Liaison Office is canvassing and pulling votes for C.Y. Leung," said a member of the election committee. A media relations officer at the office denied it was backing one candidate over another.

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