HONG KONG – Hong Kong's elite chose a former Cabinet chief as the southern Chinese financial hub's next leader on Sunday, heeding Beijing's wishes and public opinion following a tumultuous, bitter race that highlighted public discontent.
Leung Chun-ying, 57, was declared the semiautonomous territory's next chief executive after securing 689 votes from a 1,200-seat committee of business leaders and other elites, most of them loyal to Beijing. Initially considered the underdog, Leung gained the support of China's Communist leaders, who backed off their deeply unpopular first choice, Henry Tang.
Hong Kong's 7.1 million ordinary residents, who had no say, used a mock poll to show their unhappiness over an undemocratic vote in which the two main candidates were establishment figures acceptable to Beijing. About 55 percent of the 222,990 votes cast were blank in the poll conducted by Hong Kong University researchers, local media reports said.
Leung, a real estate surveyor who's known as C.Y., bowed deeply three times to election committee members after his victory was declared. Tang received 285 votes. Pro-democracy candidate Albert Ho, who had no chance of winning, got 76 votes. Another 82 of the 1,132 total votes cast were deemed invalid -- most were blank.
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters gathered at the large waterfront convention center where the vote was held, waving banners and chanting slogans calling for "One person, one vote to choose the chief executive." Some tried to push past barricades but were stopped by dozens of police, who used pepper spray.
Tang, whose backers include Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest man, was seen early on as Beijing's preferred candidate. But Tang, the heir to a textile fortune, was hit by a string of gaffes and scandals that torpedoed his approval rating.
The scandals also added to wider public discontent, driven by a yawning rich-poor gap and sky-high housing prices that have stirred popular resentment of the city's billionaires, who control Hong Kong's economy and vast real estate empires, and their perceived close ties with the government.
Beijing's decision to switch to Leung, the son of a police officer, in the days leading up to the vote indicated China's leaders think public opinion was still important as they sought a credible leader to help defuse growing anger and prevent large-scale protests, even if it means upsetting the billionaires.
Leung's pledges to beef up social reforms and expand public housing have irked the city's tycoons but pleased ordinary Hong Kongers.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is an unrestrained global capital of commerce with Western-style rights and freedoms not seen on the mainland. But it has never had full democracy and the tumultuous race has heightened many Hong Kongers' desire to directly elect their leader. Beijing has promised universal suffrage for 2017, when Leung's five-year term ends, but no roadmap has been laid out.
"To the people who are shouting and protesting outside -- yes they do have a vote, they do have a voice, yes they are part of Hong Kong," said Leung, who stepped down from the Cabinet and as chairman of a property firm to run. "I shall work with the whole of Hong Kong in the next five years to make sure the 2017 universal suffrage chief executive election will work well."
Leung pledged to maintain Hong Kong's rights and freedoms in his victory speech.
His popularity rating benefited from Tang's scandals, which included an extramarital affair, rumors of an out-of-wedlock child and a huge, illegally built addition to his home. At one point, polls showed more than 50 percent of people supported Leung versus about 17 percent for Tang.
But Leung's rating also slid after he was hit by multiple controversies, including a conflict of interest scandal and accusations by Tang that he was overly willing to deploy riot police and tear gas in 2003 to confront protesters opposed to controversial anti-subversion legislation.
Many also believe he is a longtime secret member of China's Communist Party, which they say explains how he was named to a key post on a committee helping draft the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution that took effect after China regained control in 1997. Leung denied Sunday that he was a member of the party, which officially doesn't exist in Hong Kong.
"I'm not a member of the Communist Party, I'm not a so-called underground member of the Communist Party," he said.
Political science professor Joseph Cheng of City University of Hong Kong said there is a high chance of further anti-government protests.
"Hong Kong people don't have high expectations of this administration. They believe that collusion with major business will continue and they are not happy," Cheng said.
Leung will take office on July 1, succeeding Donald Tsang, who is barred from another term.