Will naming names for poll cause waves in Beijing?

The rumour mill is running about possible candidates for the chief executive's election

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:40am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:40am

Political gossip never ends in this city. The latest round is about who might run in the 2017 chief executive poll as, all of a sudden, several names have emerged and are getting attention.

If you think it is too early to talk about this, you could be wrong. It is not just that preparing for an election takes years, but also because some people believe it necessary to let Beijing and the public know that possible candidates are out there, ready for when universal suffrage is introduced in 2017 as expected.

But is it useful to reveal the names at this stage?

It was amid this latest round of speculation that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying went to Beijing for his annual duty visit last week, updating top leaders on the city's affairs. As usual he got Beijing's firm backing.

But back in Hong Kong, what has been going on can be summed up by a Chinese proverb: "An empty hole invites the wind … wind does not come without a reason." It was fascinating to see one low-profile name enter the limelight accompanied by an active political figure, with the two described as "a pair for the future chief executive race". They are Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing and former finance secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung.

The rumours started when the two reportedly organised dinner gatherings together to discuss the ongoing consultation on constitutional reform. Then came the announcement by leading property developer Nan Fung Group that Antony Leung was to become its new CEO. The moves were seen by many as signs of his return to the local political stage. Antony Leung resigned 10 years ago, under great public pressure, for avoiding tax by buying a luxury car before the budget he drafted imposed heavy duties on new car sales.

Tsang, who once intended to run for the top job in 2011, denied he would run in 2017, nor would he want to be "a kingmaker". Meanwhile, Leung brushed aside speculation by saying "many people, including the media, are too imaginative and creative".

But his friends were not so ready to let him off the hook; one of his most vocal advocates was former commerce minister Frederick Ma Si-hang. Ma last week praised Leung, saying he would stand a good chance if he ran for chief executive. He even joked that he would volunteer to be Leung's campaign manager. The interesting thing is that Ma is also on good terms with the other Leung - Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive. But he laughed off the suggestion of some commentators that he might be a potential candidate.

The question of whether it's too early to name names for the chief executive race comes down to whether it will win or lose Beijing's support - simply because the poll is so far away.

Beijing has made public its objection to anyone it sees as "unpatriotic" or confronting taking the chief executive job, and this remains one of the thorniest issues for the current political consultation. While it needs some strong - acceptable - candidates in the 2017 race, in terms of priorities, what Beijing cares about most is how the current chief executive can maintain effective governance in the face of seemingly never-ending difficulties. Its support for him speaks volumes.

As the guessing game continues, it is widely believed that it will lead to various political considerations and calculations among different interest groups and political camps, and this could affect C.Y. Leung's authority.

Having said all this, if someone wants to run, or is being encouraged by certain groups to run, no one, including Beijing, can stop them. Beijing may also be well aware of this, thus keeping silent may be its only way to show its concerns.

As for the chief executive, he must prepare himself better for tougher challenges from new rivals, as well as his usual opponents, in the years to come.