City Beat

Beijing’s backing both a curse and a blessing in Hong Kong leadership race

But lack of an explicit endorsement from President Xi Jinping cannot support notion of ‘two power centres’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 5:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 10:14pm

Admit it or not, Hongkongers sometimes are self-conflicted when it comes to politics, especially when it involves the Beijing factor.

That’s exactly the case in the city’s current leadership race: on the one hand, many people, including the contenders, understand the importance of and are even impatient for Beijing to “bless” its preferred choice to remove the uncertainty; but any explicit endorsement at this stage can be criticised as qindian (欽點), or anointment, by Beijing. Qindian is a term used in history referring to an emperor’s personal preference in deciding a position.

There’s another intriguing phenomenon: although former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is widely considered the front runner as Beijing’s pick, there are different interpretations as to whether the support she’s getting is a “genuine” qindian, because some insist that messages conveyed by Beijing’s liaison office, or even from someone higher up, can still be questionable as long as they are not coming directly from President Xi Jinping.

So, is a qindian a blessing or a curse – or both – to an aspirant?

Let’s first look at the mixed feelings and reactions brought by last week’s trip to Shenzhen by two top state leaders in charge of Hong Kong affairs – Zhang Dejiang, the country’s No 3 leader who heads the National People’s Congress and the Communist Party’s Coordination Group on Hong Kong & Macau Affairs; and Sun Chunlan, head of the Communist Party’s United Front Department.

It was reported that Zhang and Sun told invited Hong Kong business heavyweights that Lam “is the one trusted by Beijing”. One interesting detail revealed later was that Zhang stressed the decision to back Lam was made by the party’s powerful Politburo, not by himself or Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top representative in the city.

This was seen as an effort by Beijing to dismiss speculation that the support for Lam was not coming from Xi himself – stemming from a theory of two conflicting “power centres” in Beijing regarding the handling of Hong Kong matters: one headed by Zhang, the other by Xi, who has the final say.

Lam ... has been stressing that she can win the top job through her own efforts

Understandably, there are people who tend to believe so. Also understandably, a qindian, though denied by Beijing, which sees itself as a major stakeholder in the election, is not welcome in the city. Not even by Lam herself, even though she would be seen to benefit the most from such a blessing – she has been stressing that she can win the top job through her own efforts instead of behind-the-scenes canvassing on her behalf by Beijing.

But that’s where the political irony comes in. While a qindian may be counter-productive in that sense, it still matters to a chief executive contender who needs to secure enough votes from pro-establishment Election Committee members.

That may help explain why Lam’s arch-rival, former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, also made it a point recently to specify that a handshake with President Xi about two years ago at an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank meeting in Beijing was “one of the factors” that prompted him to run. Tsang shook hands with Xi again at last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou. For his supporters, these handshakes can be taken to dismiss the suggestion that Beijing does not have full trust in him.

It’s inevitable that there will be differing views among the nation’s top leaders on certain Hong Kong issues. And a day can be a very long time in politics. However, when Xi has consolidated a solid power base, it’s hard to assume the existence of “two power centres” just because he has yet to openly indicate his preferred choice for the city’s next leader.

The inconvenient political reality that chief executive aspirants and their supporters need to face is the dilemma over a practical need to win Beijing’s endorsement and the negative impact of being blessed with a qindian.