Don’t take for granted Beijing’s support for Leung Chun-ying to lead Hong Kong beyond 2017

Gary Cheung says the NPC chairman’s praise for the chief executive’s work does not necessarily signal a nod for a second term for him, as some believe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 1:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 8:40am

On March 6, 2004, when chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was received by then president Hu Jintao at Zhongnanhai,  Hu pledged the central government would continue to support Tung and the Hong Kong government’s work.

After the five-minute photo session, security guards were impatient for Hong Kong journalists covering the meeting to leave the venue. Pointing to the direction where Tung was sitting, one of the guards said: “Go! Go! State leaders always say the same things to the person sitting in that seat.”

Such encounters between Hong Kong journalists and security guards in Zhongnanhai have been routine during meetings between state leaders and Hong Kong’s chief executives over the years.

The security guard is in a better position than many pundits in understanding the true meaning of state leaders’ words of support for the city’s chief executive; it is standard practice for state leaders to express support for the serving chief executive. Despite Hu’s blessing before the camera, Tung resigned as chief executive the following year, citing health reasons.

The security guard’s no-nonsense observation may shed light on analysing the message behind National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang’s  affirmation of the performance of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.  

Speaking after his meeting last month with the state leader overseeing Hong Kong affairs, Leung cited Zhang as telling him that he was “very satisfied” with his performance over the past 20 months in trying to reform the city’s political system.

A week after Leung quoted Zhang’s affirmation of his performance, he executed his biggest cabinet reshuffle by replacing two ministers. The sudden removal of Tsang Tak-sing – jailed for two years for distributing an “inflammatory leaflet” during the 1967 riots – as home affairs secretary was particularly stunning as his loyalty to Beijing was beyond doubt.

People close to Leung took Zhang’s expression of support and Beijing’s green light for removing the two ministers as proof of the central government’s backing for the chief executive’s bid for a second term.

But if you believe in the wisdom of that Zhongnanhai security guard, we shouldn’t read too much into Zhang’s approval of Leung’s performance. State leaders cannot afford not to express support for the serving chief executive, particularly when Leung is facing huge difficulties.

Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also highlighted Zhang’s words after the party’s trip to Beijing at the end of last month, in which Zhang asked them to support Leung and the Hong Kong government. The central government is prudent enough not to make its position known at such an early stage.

Given Leung’s hardline approach, which has won the praise of many state leaders, and his advantage as the incumbent, he enjoys an edge over other potential challengers in 2017.  

But his chances will also hinge on factors such as how the pro-establishment camp fares in the upcoming district council and Legislative Council elections, as well as his ability to broaden his support base and improve his governance in the next two years.

In April issue of the Hong Kong and Macao Journal, Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, reminded the Leung administration to be more inclusive, make more friends and reduce the number of enemies. The views of Lau, who has the ears of top Beijing officials, are food for thought in analysing Leung’s political fortune.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor