The race for the chief executive post has shifted into a higher gear following the election of the members for the Election Committee.
The big surprise of late came from lawmaker and former chairman of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood, Frederick Fung Kin-kee, who announced this month that he would also join the race. As pro-democracy supporters managed only to win some 200 seats on the committee - enough to nominate one candidate - it has precipitated a split between the ADPL and the Democratic Party, which has proposed that its chairman, Albert Ho Chun-yan, should stand. Previously, such a matter would have been settled behind closed doors. But this time the pan-democrats decided to make more news by holding a so-called 'primary' on January 8 in 60 'polling stations' across Hong Kong.
This comes as a surprise, because the only reason the pan-democrats would participate in what they call a 'small-circle election' is to make a political statement - to discredit it. Since Ho, representing the largest party in the camp, has already volunteered, that purpose will already be served. So Fung's sudden jump into the fray makes no sense.
It seems politicians will take any opportunity for publicity - and, in this case, everything should be put to a public vote. But who cares? The pan-democrats are in for another disappointing turnout for this sham primary after their staged 'referendum' last year.
Another surprise was that, in spite of his high popularity in opinion polls, Leung Chun-ying has far fewer supporters among those elected to the Election Committee. The supporters of Henry Tang Ying-yen made a big fuss about it - the idea being to keep asserting that Tang is the 'chosen one', to nibble away at Leung's popularity and squeeze him out of the race early.
So far, it hasn't worked; Leung is as resilient as ever, and every time Tang opens his mouth, he scores a point for his opponent. The pro-establishment camp is now paralysed because members don't know which way to bet, and many have urged Beijing to indicate its preference as soon as possible to prevent a split. This is ironic, as Beijing wants instead to listen to their views, and that is why it recently sent emissaries here to collect some opinions.
As far as I can gather, there is no such thing as preordination in this election. To responsibly exercise its final authority of appointment, the central government is keeping a close watch on the race. As Wang Guangya, head of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, declared, Beijing is examining each candidate's ability, platform and public support. Presumably, he wants Hong Kong citizens to rationally elect their leader.
If, according to conventional wisdom, the central government will decide the outcome of the election, there's no need to reveal its preference in these early stages. As the next chief executive is expected to seek re-election in 2017 - the first universal suffrage election - this is the only chance for a dress rehearsal.
The present rivalry between Leung and Tang can be viewed as a sign of things to come, and it will carry on at least until the final days before official nomination. So Henry and C.Y. will have to give us more.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development