Opening shots fired as battle for Hong Kong’s top job finally gets under way

Retired judge throws hat in ring and blasts incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying, former security minister Regina Ip confirms interest in the post, and strategy of Financial Secretary John Tsang is revealed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 9:49am

Hong Kong charged into election mode on Thursday as retired judge Woo Kwok-hing’s declaration he was gunning for the chief executive post prompted other potential contenders to fire their own opening shots, with incumbent Leung Chun-ying unleashing the strongest salvoes.

For the first time, executive and legislative councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee confirmed speculation she was “interested” in running for Hong Kong’s top job, while a Liberal Party veteran disclosed details of Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah’s strategy to gain votes.

Watch: Retired judge throws hat in the ring for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election

Tsang’s office did not comment on reports claiming he wrote to Beijing last week of his intention to step down for the race.

Responding with a thinly-veiled attack, Leung urged his Exco cabinet members to stay “focused and dedicated” on the current administration’s work, which included preparing for his policy address and the budget next year.

“This is the government’s job, as well as my expectation for all my colleagues in the administration,” he said.

Alluding to what he saw as his track record, Leung also asked whether thorny issues like housing and calls for Hong Kong independence could be better handled by a new chief executive.

“Will the land and housing problems that have accumulated in Hong Kong become easier to solve under a new leader...?

“Will the cabinet continue to touch on vested interests in the property market with courage and determination, and amid difficulties, to solve the city’s housing problems?” he asked. “Will those pushing for the city’s independence stop what they are doing?”

The exchanges finally parted the curtains on the months-long behind-the-scenes jostling for the chief executive race, whose winner will be selected by a 1,200-strong committee in March.

Woo, 70, pledged to restart the political reform process, as he pitched his election bid as a way to heal social divisions that had deepened under Leung’s leadership. Without mincing words, Woo blasted him for failing to “address public grievances and halt the division of our society”.

He said that unlike Leung, he had “no political baggage”. He was also impartial, with “no dirt” and “no mistresses”. Woo admitted that he had informed someone in the central government’s liaison office of his decision.

He said the person was not Zhang Xiaoming, the ­office’s head, but that he had not heard back from Beijing.

On controversial anti-subversion laws under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Woo said he had “no idea why” there was “all that fuss in the past” and he would advocate for it. “If the law is made in Hong Kong, we can expect ... Hong Kong’s core values to be safeguarded,” he said.

Tsang’s plans were exposed by Liberal Party honorary chairman James Tien Pei-chun, a fierce critic of Leung. “Tsang told us [in the business sector] to be proactive in winning seats in the election committee,” he told Cable TV.

“And then if he is running, he hoped we will support him. I think it means that he will run in the city’s leadership race, otherwise why all these efforts in encouraging us?”

Ip, who stepped down as security minister following the 2003 protests over Article 23, also signalled her readiness to do battle.

“I am interested [in running for the chief executive position], and the preparation work is ongoing,” she said. “We need to change a chief executive. You need to give people a hope of change.”

Ip attacked Tsang as an official who had accomplished little over the past decade.

Analyst Ma Ngok said the race was unusual in that aspirants appeared to be jumping into the fray without waiting for Beijing’s approval, likely because of the highly charged environment.

Speaking after visiting Man Mo Temple, renowned for answering the prayers of those seeking a boost in their careers, a confident Leung was asked if officials in his cabinet should be gunning for the chief executive post.

In a swipe at Ip and Tsang, he said: “I think this is a matter of responsibility. We are responsible for society. ”