Territory holds first candidates Q&A

HONG KONG — It’s hard to imagine the public referring to George W. Bush as “Cowboy Boots” while asking him questions during a presidential election debate.

But during the chief executive debate in Hong Kong on Thursday — the territory’s first — CEO Donald Tsang and his pro-democracy challenger Alan Leong agreed to go by their nicknames.

Questioners were allowed to call Tsang “Bowtie” after his signature accessory, while Leong was “Pocket Handkerchief.”

The locals give nicknames to everyone, even the most high profile of government officials. It seems natural in a language like Cantonese, which is very colloquial and colorful.

While it all might seem lighthearted, the fact that the debate happened at all will go down in history. The special administrative region’s Q&A aired from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Chinese-language ATV Home, the No. 2 free-to-air station.

Tsang is the second chief executive since the U.K. handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Hong Kong’s leader is elected by an 800-member electoral college with Beijing’s approval.

Calling it an election is misleading. Most of that 800 have pledged support to Tsang before the March 25 event. Leong is the first candidate to get enough endorsements from the election committee to even get on a ballot — leaders ran unopposed in previous elections.

In the first hour, questions came from the 800 people in the electoral college, whose names were chosen from two sealed boxes on the stage.

The candidates fielded questions from the general public during the last 20 minutes.

New to TV debating, Tsang and Leong started off stiff and formal. Leong was the first to relax after about 30 minutes with frequent clapping from the audience boosting his confidence.

Tsang was uptight, kept his answers short and frequently said he didn’t want to go into details.  

But Beijing seems to like him, which means his election is all but certain to go through.

This makes the debate merely a practice for a time when Hong Kong might have a more democratic election for its political leader.

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