Carrie Lam may be Beijing’s choice, but Hong Kong still needs a fair leadership race

Gary Cheung says the effusive support from pro-Beijing papers proves Lam has the backing of the central leadership, but John Tsang’s popularity reflects the public desire for a change of style

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 1:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 January, 2017, 8:49pm

Wang Guangya, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the central government would observe “every” chief executive candidate and seriously analyse their governing principles.

Wang’s remarks, made to the pro-Beijing Bauhinia magazine last month, were viewed as Beijing’s hint that it is not ready to show its hand on its preferred choice in the chief executive race, igniting hope among some Hongkongers that there would be free competition.

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But the game turned ugly shortly after Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor resigned as chief secretary on January 12. The pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po devoted its front page plus three full pages the next day to reports on her resignation and positive comments about her from various sectors, followed by two full pages on Lam on January 14 and the day after. Then, three full pages on January 17 were devoted to coverage of Lam’s declaration of candidacy the previous day, along with an editorial giving her the thumbs-up. Pro-Beijing peer Ta Kung Pao also expressed support for Lam in its editorial that day and even congratulated her on her “victory”.

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Their high-profile endorsements were in stark contrast to the low-key coverage of rival candidate John Tsang Chun-wah’s resignation on December 12.

Watch: John Tsang vows to restore hope to Hong Kong

While Ta Kung Pao ran a 620-word article, Wen Wei Po had a 735-word report on page 13 on December 13, and then devoted half of page 15 on January 22 to Tsang’s declaration to run for Hong Kong’s top job.

Pro-Beijing papers’ preference for Lam can be explained by the liaison office’s instructions to their senior editors, two weeks ago, to “gradually devote more extensive coverage” to Lam, who is Beijing’s preferred candidate. Some pro-establishment figures cited those newspapers’ blessing for Lam as evidence that Beijing favours her.

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Beijing’s simultaneous approval of Lam’s and Tsang’s resignations on January 16 also lent credence to the claim that it had already anointed Lam, who stepped down a month after Tsang.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, deputy chair of the New People’s Party, spoke of the presence of “invisible political hands” in the battle for the top job. He noted that the election was becoming a game without competition, even within the pro-establishment camp.

The communists are known for their penchant for ensuring everything is under control, but I don’t understand why they can’t take some risks to allow some kind of competition among candidates.

Both Lam and Tsang should have passed Beijing’s trust test, having cleared the integrity checks of the central government. There is a lack of convincing explanation why Beijing does not have full trust in Tsang, who first became a principal official in 1999 and served as financial secretary for 10 years.

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Tsang, known for his laid-back style, is a believer in “big market, small government”. We can’t expect him to be as proactive as Lam in taking bold initiatives to address issues like the wealth gap.

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Yet Tsang’s relatively high popularity underlines the desire of a substantial proportion of Hongkongers for a respite, after witnessing the split caused by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s tough and divisive style.

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In the city’s first chief executive race in 1996, the “small-circle election” turned out to be a relatively fair contest among four candidates. Shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa scored a double victory, in the chief executive election and public opinion game, although he was widely seen as being handpicked by Beijing to be the first post-handover leader.

Making the “small-circle election” fairer and more democratic is the humble wish of many in Hong Kong.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor