HONG KONG (Reuters) - Thousands of protestors could take to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to demonstrate against the scandal-ridden selection of the city's next chief executive, angry they had no say in the vote and at Beijing's stifling of full democracy for the territory it regained from Britain in 1997.
"You'll get another mass demonstration," a senior civil servant with a key policy portfolio told Reuters on condition of anonymity. More than 30 civic, student and pro-democracy groups are planning to demonstrate.
Voting for a successor to the bow tie-wearing chief executive, Donald Tsang, will be a 1,200-member election committee stacked with tycoons, professionals and pro-Beijing loyalists, many of whom were appointed uncontested to the committee, such as Li Ka-shing, the wealthiest man in Asia.
The two businessmen competing for the job, Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying, are elite political insiders with longstanding ties to Beijing. Both, however, have been hit by a near daily onslaught of controversy and mud-slinging that has impacted their integrity and popularity ratings.
The scandals have also tarnished the global financial hub's reputation for fairness, good governance and stability.
"I'd be very surprised if he (Tang) lasts very long. In Beijing's eyes, he was supposed to represent stability. That doesn't apply anymore," said the senior civil servant.
Tang, beset by an illegal construction furore, rumours of an illegitimate child and marital infidelities, trails Leung in opinion polls while Leung faces a legislative investigation for a conflict-of-interest scandal.
Hong Kong's current chief executive and his predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, have had tumultuous tenures. Tsang, who retires in June, was recently criticised for socialising with tycoons on private jets and accepting advantages. Tung, a wooden, unpopular leader, faced street protests by half a million people in 2003 that eventually led him to quit office mid-term.
"It's a crazy soap opera," said Samuel Shiu, an I.T. professional as he ate steamed dim sum in a restaurant with his family. "Hong Kong people know what kind of leader they want, but we simply don't have a say."
The election is often dubbed a "small circle" poll and is the fourth since 1997 when Britain handed its last colony back to China and Tung, a shipping executive, was chosen as its first chief executive. He was followed by incumbent Tsang.
"This sorry spectacle that we see unfolding before our eyes every single day just makes us the laughing stock," said Anson Chan, Hong Kong's former civil service chief.
Dubbed the city's "conscience," Chan retired early in 2001, given what analysts said was her refusal to undermine Hong Kong's interests under her boss, former chief executive Tung, who is now a senior Chinese official and advisor.
"It is a crisis of governance. It is, I think, symptomatic of both overt and covert chipping away at our values, at Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong," said Chan, the first woman and first Chinese to hold the position of Hong Kong's civil service chief.
When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule on a rain-soaked night in 1997, people feared China's Communist leaders would trample on the city's freedom, rule of law and capitalist zeal that made it a free market beacon of economic success.
As part of the political bargain to protect Hong Kong's free-wheeling spirit after 1997, Beijing pledged to allow a high degree of autonomy and to keep things unchanged for 50 years.
After intense pressure from pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong, China in 2007 grudgingly laid out a timetable to allow full democracy in 2017, but many expect Beijing to rig electoral rules to influence the outcome.
China's promises however, have not stopped it from stepping into Hong Kong's affairs.
China's invisible hand in Hong Kong has extended into media, legal and education spheres through a "United Front" strategy of co-opting the city's elite. The city has barred Chinese dissidents and critics from entering the territory, while a visit by Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang last year saw a heavy security clampdown that sparked claims of civil rights violations.
Other social strains have surfaced over Hong Kong's integration with China, including pregnant mainland mothers crowding out local maternity wards so their children born in Hong Kong will receive residency rights.
Last Friday, a televised election debate crackled with fresh controversy when Tang accused Leung of proposing a crackdown on the mass protest in 2003 using riot police and tear gas, a move derided by many Hong Kongers who cherish the city's freedoms.
"I absolutely didn't say this," Leung replied.
"You are deceiving people. Don't lie," shot back an animated Tang, jabbing his finger at Leung repeatedly.
Paul Ho, a lifeguard living in a 200-square foot public flat crammed with books, feels life has not improved since China regained control of Hong Kong.
"The most important task right now is to pull the blinds up, to let people see how much of their interests are being controlled by others," he said. "If you can avoid being a slave, don't be a slave."
With tensions rising, some say Hong Kong now needs a strong, committed leader to stand up for the city to prevent the further erosion of values that have made it unique.
A deeply pragmatic and entrepreneurial people, Hong Kongers are very active in protecting their freedoms if they perceive they are being pushed into a corner.
Academics like Michael DeGolyer, a long-term resident and head of the Hong Kong Transition Project, describes this as a culture of "reactive surliness" to fill the democracy vacuum.
"We see people who are constantly alert to a reason to get angry because they know that no other emotion will have an effect. If they're angry enough and enough people are angry enough, then change will happen. So if you want change, get mad and get vocal."
Beijing has avoided taking a clear position on who it may back in the election, though China's Premier Wen Jiabao recently said the next leader must "enjoy the support of the vast majority of Hong Kong people."
Yet many of Hong Kong's business tycoons, whose wealth and connections have long given them great sway over the city's affairs, continue to back Henry Tang, who has the lowest popularity ratings of around 20 percent.
While the tycoons are motivated by self-interest, some analysts think they play a sometimes unappreciated role in defending Hong Kong's equality, rule of law and freedoms against pressure from Beijing.
"Without some semblance of political and economic autonomy, they're just as vulnerable as billionaires in China," said Victor Shih, a Hong Kong-born expert in Chinese politics at Northwestern University in the United States.
Shih was referring to the plight of Chinese billionaires like Wu Ying, once a lauded Chinese business leader, who is now on death row on charges of defrauding investors.
With many election committee members now lacking clear guidance from Beijing, there's talk some may cast blank ballots, in the hope of forcing a re-election in May with fresh and untainted candidates that enjoy greater public support.
Such a revolt would provide the Hong King leadership election with perhaps the biggest taste of democracy yet and add to the scandal-laden drama already playing out.
"Democracy isn't a threat," said Britain's last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten in a luxury hotel close to where he bade farewell to the British territory he governed until June 30, 1997. "Is accountability going to be something which is enhanced everywhere in the future, including mainland China? If you believe Premier Wen Jiabao, yes, it certainly is."
Patten added Hong Kong's "hardware and software of pluralism" - its rights and freedoms - must be preserved if the city is to keep its edge.
"It's very important that people continue to watch zealously," a silver-haired Patten told Reuters, "to make sure the principles that underpin it are safeguarded."
Editing by Matt Driskill