Xi Jinping

Seeking a handshake, missing the message

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am


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In politics, body language can speak volumes - even more so when it is expected but does not occur. The subtle shift can send a powerful message.

In Beijing, there was a 'fight' among Hong Kong political heavyweights for front seats in a conference room. The scramble was all about being the first to shake hands with the central government's top man in charge of Hong Kong affairs, Vice-President Xi Jinping, China's likely next leader.

A Xi handshake was not about courtesy for the Hong Kong delegates at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Die-hard supporters of Henry Tang Ying-yan and Leung Chun-ying - the leading candidates for Hong Kong chief executive - thought whoever got the first hand shake from Xi would be seen as securing Beijing's blessing for their candidate. Both sides expected a 'strong hint' from Xi.

The handshake was there, but the hint was of a different kind. Xi first shook the hand of Lew Mon-hung, who sat at the very front. It caused a stir, for Lew is a vocal supporter of Leung. But Xi soon shook hands with Peter Woo Kwong-ching, chairman of Wharf, who nominated Tang. It was anyone's guess who was more favoured, especially since Tang's supporters accused Lew of 'deliberately occupying the front seat'.

In the meeting, Xi was tight-lipped on the mud-slinging chief executive race. Instead, he called for 'unity and harmony', referring to an old Chinese saying 'when brothers are of the same mind, their sharpness can cut through metal'. Xi sent a message that day, but it was not the one expected.

Two days later, Chen Mingyi, deputy head of the CPPCC's Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs committee, delivered a straightforward one. He criticised the composition of Hong Kong CPPCC's delegation, saying the proportion of delegates with business backgrounds was 'too high' at almost 90 per cent.

'Since Hong Kong is to embrace universal suffrage in 2017,' he said, 'there is a need to allow a greater variety of voices from outside business, such as professionals from the science and technology, health and media industries'.

Chen's remarks may not mark a policy shift by Beijing, but they signal a change of mind among many at the top. And it is not lost on Hong Kong's business leaders that Chen was once Xi's boss.

In the 1990s, Chen was the party chief in Fujian - a province with deep Taiwan and Hong Kong connections - and Xi was Chen's deputy. We don't know whether Xi's 'old leader' shared his thoughts with his former deputy. But, clearly, they both believe Hong Kong must have a smooth transition to universal suffrage in 2017.

It's time to stop the childish infighting for a front seat to meet Xi. Our honourable Hong Kong CPPCC members should give more serious thought to Xi's comments and his 'old leader's' remarks. Read between the lines. Hong Kong's business elite needs a sense of urgency, if not crisis, in preparing for a shake-up of the political landscape as the city moves towards direct elections.

Beijing's strategy in this chief executive's race has been different from the outset. Many assumed that Tang, supported by the business community, was the chosen one. But Beijing has never shown its preference or offered a hint. That's because Beijing has learned a lesson from a previous 'handshaking' incident.

It was back in 1996, during Hong Kong's first chief executive campaign. At a crowded meeting of Hong Kong politicians in Beijing, president Jiang Zemin searched high and low for Tung Chee-hwa. Jiang finally found him and shook his hand. Tung became Beijing's pick and was elected chief executive. Before finishing his second term, Tung was forced to step down.

Beijing seems to realise it will pay too high a price if it picks a chief executive without regard to the will of the people of Hong Kong.

So, Beijing's silence so far tells a great deal. The city's business elite needs to wake up and stop wasting time second-guessing Beijing and muscling into handshake photos. Instead, try to understand the new thinking coming out of Beijing.