HONG KONG – The candidate favored by China's Communist leadership was chosen as Hong Kong's new leader on Sunday, in the first such vote since huge pro-democracy protests erupted over the city's election system in 2014.
A committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites selected Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong government's former No. 2 official, as the financial hub's chief executive. Lam received 67 percent of the vote and will become Hong Kong's first female leader and its fourth since British colonial control ended in 1997.
China's leaders had lobbied behind the scenes for the 59-year-old Lam, so her victory came as no surprise. After the votes were counted, she bowed to the crowd and shook hands with the second-place finisher, former Finance Secretary John Tsang.
Some pro-democracy supporters in the official seating area yelled slogans and held up a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the 2014 protests, as the results were announced. The elite election committee was at the root of the protests as activists decried the lack of a direct choice by Hong Kong's 3.8 million registered voters.
Lam is an efficient and pragmatic administrator, but is unpopular with Hong Kongers because she's seen as a proxy for Beijing and out of touch with ordinary people. Tsang, in contrast, is highly popular because of his easygoing persona and deft use of social media. He has been nicknamed "Pringles" or "Uncle Chips" in Cantonese for his signature mustache that draws comparisons to the snack food mascot. His followers call themselves "small potatoes."
Lam received 777 of the 1,163 votes. Tsang got 365 votes, or 31 percent, while the third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, had 21 votes.
As the next leader of the Asian financial center, Lam will inherit a city split by political divisions and saddled with sluggish economic growth. Many fear that Beijing is tightening control and undermining the "one country, two systems" framework that guarantees Hong Kong high autonomy. Those fears have been amplified by cases in recent years such as five booksellers secretly detained on the mainland and a Chinese tycoon's mysterious disappearance.
Lam's ability to soothe tensions relies on how much public support she can gain.
"My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustrations and to unite our society to move forward," she said at a news conference after the results were announced.
Lam said she would not immediately revive attempts to revamp the electoral system, a potential political flashpoint that could rekindle protests by pro-democracy supporters. She said she wanted to focus on other more pressing issues such as housing, education and health care.
"There is a serious divide in Hong Kong, so why don't we start with the easier subjects and try to reach consensus" on how to tackle those other problems first, she said.
Lam will take office on July 1, succeeding current leader Leung Chun-ying, who cited family reasons when he ruled out a second term. Political analysts suspect Beijing asked Leung, a highly polarizing figure, to step aside for someone better liked.
Members of the Hong Kong's election committee include tycoons like Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest person. They represent industry and trade groups such as finance, accounting, real estate and textiles. Most support China's Communist leaders and are expected to vote according to their wishes.
Hong Kong lawmakers, local councilors and delegates to China's rubber-stamp parliament also have votes, and some 326 seats, mostly in the education, legal, health and social welfare sectors, are held by pro-democracy supporters.