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HONG KONG – The three candidates vying to be Hong Kong's next leader squared off in a feisty debate in front of hundreds of voters who peppered them with questions.
They wrangled over policy proposals for the semiautonomous Chinese city and took jabs at each other at Sunday's forum. In one particularly testy exchange, frontrunner Carrie Lam, a former chief secretary, sniped at rival John Tsang for keeping a clean desk during his time as the city's finance chief, implying that he hadn't kept himself busy enough.
"No files, no papers, so I really envied him," Lam said, adding her desk was always covered in documents.
Tsang shot back that "besides working hard, we have to work smart," drawing cheers from the audience.
With the vote for Hong Kong's next chief executive set for Sunday, the forum was one of the last big chances for the contenders to drum up support from among the 1,194 members of an election committee who take their cues from Beijing. Voters from among Hong Kong's 7.3 million residents have no say in choosing the chief executive.
Although the mustachioed Tsang, nicknamed "Pringles" or "Uncle Chips" for his resemblance to the snack food mascot, enjoys broad support, Lam, the city's former No. 2 ranking official, is widely expected to win.
The election committee, whose members organized and attended the debate, is heavily stacked with representatives of business, trade and professional groups who vote according to the wishes of China's communist leaders. There are also about 320 pro-democracy supporters among their ranks.
The electoral system was the main target of 2014's massive pro-democracy street protests that gripped the city for 79 days and grabbed world headlines, altering common views of Hong Kong as a ruthlessly efficient business center with little interest in politics.
In contrast to Lam, Tsang has an affable, easygoing persona and has deftly used social media to connect with ordinary people. He earned kudos in 2015 for cheering on Hong Kong's soccer team in World Cup qualifier matches against China, while other officials took a more politically correct noncommittal stance.
In a mock poll organized by Hong Kong University researchers, Tsang had a net support rate of 87.7 percent from about 65,000 votes cast electronically or in person. Lam had net negative support of 94.5 percent. A third candidate, ex-judge Woo Kwok-hing, had negative support of 12.3 percent.
"Nobody is in doubt that Carrie will win," because Beijing has been heavily lobbying pro-establishment election committee members to support her, said Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Willy Lam and Carrie Lam are not related.
Lam has Beijing's backing but she's been ridiculed for gaffes that give the impression she's out of touch with ordinary people.
In one incident, Lam said she couldn't find toilet paper for the new apartment she moved to after vacating her official residence upon launching her campaign for chief executive. She was forced to make a late evening return to her government apartment to spend the night.
Despite that, Lam has a reputation for being a pragmatic and effective administrator. Beijing's support for her candidacy is seen as a reward for her loyalty while serving under the deeply unpopular current leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, known by his initials, C.Y.
Leung has passed on the opportunity to seek a second term in office, citing family reasons. His surprise announcement was seen by analysts as an indication that Beijing asked him to step aside in favor of someone less unpopular but who could still be trusted to carry out its agenda in Hong Kong.
The city is supposed to have much leeway in running its own affairs but recent incidents have stoked fears that Beijing is tightening its grip.
Analysts said Beijing wants to ensure Hong Kong's next leader will have more support than Leung, who could never shake off his nickname "689," a reference to the number of votes he received — barely half of the total.
"The last time it was a bit humiliating, 689 was considered to be a bit low," said Willy Lam. "This time their top priority (in Beijing) is that Carrie must be seen as doing substantially better than C.Y., so that means at least a vote closer to 750."
Lam been dubbed C.Y. 2.0, because many Hong Kongers believe she'll adopt the same hard-line policies pursued by her former boss.
Samson Yuen, a politics lecturer at the Open University of Hong Kong, predicted a Lam administration would continue to take actions that constrain the "organizational resources" of pro-democracy parties, making it difficult for them to survive.
Under Leung, the government won an unprecedented lawsuit last year disqualifying two activist lawmakers — who advocated Hong Kong independence — for improperly taking their oaths of office. It's pursuing similar suits against four others.
Carrie Lam "will inherit the tactics of C.Y. Leung, because if Carrie wins that means C.Y. will have a lot of influence over the political system," said Yuen. "That means such kind of repression will still go on. I do think the space for the pro-democracy movement will shrink."
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