City Beat

Now the first horse has bolted, the stakes have been raised in the race for Hong Kong’s top job

With speculation that former judge Woo Kwok-hing is playing the role of stalking horse in the chief executive contest, will other candidates now show their hands?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 4:26pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2016, 9:20pm

“A tossed stone raises a thousand ripples” – many must have been reminded of this Chinese saying when retired judge Woo Kwok-hing shocked the whole town by declaring his intention to run for Hong Kong’s top job.

The “thousand ripples” could translate into how many and how soon other “dark horses” will be prompted to join the race, including incumbent Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The ripple effect could also involve reactions and policy adjustments from Beijing, which, until now, is still silent on whom it prefers.

Interestingly, when Woo held his high-profile press conference in his campaign office packed with hundreds of reporters, it so happened to be a significant day for President Xi Jinping. After the closing of the sixth plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it was noticed that for the first time Xi was officially named the “core” of the party leadership, as the plenum’s communiqué also urged further enhancement of the anti-corruption campaign.

Speculation had it that Beijing would only consider hinting at whom to pick after the plenum, or even in December after the new election committee is formed. Will there be a change, now that the chief executive race has kicked off earlier than expected, thanks to Woo?

Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top representative in the city, was seen speaking in a group discussion during the plenum, according to the official China Central Television. This may disappoint those who want to see Zhang’s departure from the city, as they feel the liaison office, under his leadership, has become too actively involved in certain local issues. It is also a clear sign of Beijing keeping a close eye on Hong Kong’s latest situation.

Hongkongers will appreciate an election with more quality competition and debate – a scenario Beijing should also be happy to see

While Woo has become the most effective catalyst for other likely chief executive candidates to step out, whether it can trigger an earlier signal from Beijing is something else. Woo, the reputable judge who claims to be totally impartial, has simply broken the unwritten rule: that Beijing’s explicit or implicit blessing is the precondition for any serious candidate before they throw their hat in the ring.

While admitting that he has had no favourable feedback from Beijing, and despite having never been involved in politics, he seems to be a quick learner as he immediately identified Leung as his rival by criticising the incumbent. He accused Leung of failing to “address public grievances and come up with effective remedies to cure social divides”. Leung’s indirect rebuttal to that was to question whether thorny issues such as the housing shortage or independence calls would disappear simply by changing the chief executive.

This has led to further speculation that Woo may be a “stalking horse” to assist Tsang, especially in future election debates, since the financial secretary is regarded as being less eloquent than Leung when it comes to public speeches. Woo brushed aside the suggestion that he is the agent of any individual or camp. Whatever the case, Hongkongers will appreciate an election with more quality competition and debate – a scenario Beijing should also be happy to see.

Yet Beijing’s priority at the moment is to make sure any independence attempt is firmly crushed. Like it or not, Leung has shown his firm stand by taking the president of the legislature to court over his decision to allow two elected localist lawmakers a second chance to take their oaths after they caused deep offence by insulting China in their original swearing-in ceremony.

The early shot fired across the bow in the chief executive race has unavoidably brought about a change of tone in the political atmosphere, something Beijing must consider in deciding its next step.

Let’s see what more “ripples” will appear.