City Beat

Premier Li gives hints about Beijing’s expectations of next Hong Kong chief executive

Leadership in Beijing may see election process as an occasion for Hongkongers to look more thoroughly into the letter and spirit of the city’s Basic Law

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 5:24pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 9:30pm

For the first time in his annual government work report, Premier Li Keqiang condemned independence advocacy in Hong Kong, concluding such a movement would “lead nowhere”. The comment is seen by Hongkongers as an open request to their future leader, who will be elected later this month, to take a firm stand against any attempt to split the city from China.

This could be just one of Beijing’s expectations for the next chief executive. Another key message provides some clues. Li pledged that Beijing would continue to implement “both to the letter and in spirit” the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, and to support “law-based governance” for the city.

On the face of it, this is nothing new as it has appeared regularly in the premier’s report in recent years. Beijing keeps reminding everyone that it is a matter of running Hong Kong in accordance with not only the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, but also the country’s constitution in the wider national context.

What could that mean in reality? Beijing’s role in the current chief executive race could well be an illustration.

Ironically, to the disappointment of some – including the news media – this election, until now, has not been tainted by the so-called “black material” which was so rampant five years ago when candidates were smeared by mud-slinging and the airing of dirty laundry.

The only “juicy news” moment this time was front runner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s dismissal of speculation about marriage problems. She stressed she had full faith in her husband.

Instead, the major focus is on Beijing’s alleged “manipulation” of the election, the biggest controversy this year.

For many Hongkongers, the dilemma here is the concept of “Beijing’s blessing” for any leadership candidate. While it is vital to winning the race, it could also backfire in the sense that it becomes an “original sin” to be perceived as the central government’s “anointed one”. That is exactly the predicament Lam finds herself in, prompting her to stress again and again that she is running her own campaign under her own steam.

But Beijing, it seems, is determined to make it clear that its final say is substantial and not just a formality. And that is how it sees “one country, two systems” being implemented “without being bent or distorted”, as the Basic Law stipulates clearly the relations between the chief executive and the central government.

An election is about more than just choosing a leader. It is also a socio-political mobilisation campaign.

Here in Hong Kong, while the general public has unfortunately missed a great opportunity to cast a vote for a preferred leader due to the failure of the political reform process, the people still matter. Besides lobbying the small group of Election Committee members who will pick the city’s next leader, each candidate has to face the public through various debates organised by different sectors, be grilled by the news media and reach out to the man or woman on the street.

All this has turned the election into a social debate and reflection on governance.

So while Beijing keeps stressing its “substantial” say in the city’s leadership set-up – not only regarding the chief executive but also his or her future cabinet, along with the appointment of principal officials, according to the Basic Law – it understandably sees this election process as a perfect occasion for Hongkongers to look more thoroughly into the “letter and spirit” of the mini-constitution, even though it must be aware that there are those who do not fully agree or even disagree with its interpretations.

In this regard, it could be Beijing’s deliberate attempt to allow such a controversy to snowball, while also making it an educational exercise for the city, like it or not.