Hong Kong leader appoints two new cabinet members just four months from leadership race

Liberal Party chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan and Martin Liao Cheung-kong, convenor of the pro-establishment camp in the Legislative Council, become non-official members of the Executive Council

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 November, 2016, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 2:01am

Hong Kong’s leader has appointed two pro-establishment lawmakers to his cabinet, just four months before the next chief executive election, in what is seen as an attempt to consolidate his political support base, improve relations with the legislature and lay the groundwork for seeking a second term.

Political commentators saw Leung Chun-ying’s unexpected move on Friday as a message to Beijing and Hongkongers that he can forge a working alliance with a fractured pro-establishment camp, including those who have been openly hostile towards him.

Leung issued a statement on Friday afternoon announcing the appointment of Liberal Party chairman Tommy Cheung Yu-yan and Martin Liao Cheung-kong, convenor of the Legislative Council’s pro-establishment camp, as executive councillors, with immediate effect. The chief executive did not explain why he was expanding his cabinet so close to the leadership election next March, and with seven months remaining in his five-year term.

“I am confident that they will offer valuable ­advice and effectively fulfil the role of assisting ­policymaking after joining Exco,” Leung said.

A government source said the chief executive had been planning to appoint Cheung and Liao shortly after the Legco elections in early September. “The idea came much earlier than the chief executive’s meeting with President Xi Jinping in Lima on Monday,” the source said.

The additions bring the number of Exco’s ­non- ­official members to 16, including representatives from all the major pro-establishment groups in ­Legco.

The appointment of the Liberal Party chief sparked speculation among political scientists such as Ma Ngok that Leung was trying to split the rebellious pro-business bloc, because its former leader and party linchpin, James Tien Pei-chun, had publicly indicated the Liberals would support the so-called “ABC” – or “anyone but CY [Leung]” – drive in the coming chief executive election.

“ABC is only the stance of individual party ­mem­bers,” Cheung said on Friday. “We will work with the government on things that we care about and speak for the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises.”

The catering-sector lawmaker dismissed ­suggestions that his appointment was linked to Leung’s possible re-election, denying it was a political reward of any sort and refusing to say whether he would support a second term.

He stressed his decision was backed by party colleagues and he would not resign as chairman.

Tien called on Cheung to step down as party chair as he had failed to inform him and leading members about the move. “What [Cheung] did is very inappropriate and I don’t think he can represent our party’s views in Exco,” Tien said.

“Leung Chun-ying doesn’t enjoy public support and the ­government should not expect unconditional support of our four lawmakers for its policies.”

However, party leader Felix Chung Kwok-pan said he backed Cheung because the Liberals were anxious to have a pro-business voice heard in the cabinet.

“We are concerned the chief executive would, under pressure, implement labour policy that’s unfavourable to businesses,” Chung said.

The party “will not commit” to support Leung’s re-election despite the appointment, he added.

Ray Yep Kin-man, a political scientist at City University, ­described Cheung’s appointment as a political gesture by Leung to show he was able to communicate with pro-establishment groups and the business sector.

Former government think tank head Lau Siu-kai said Leung wanted to score points from both Beijing and Hongkongers by showing he was willing to ­improve relationships with the parties who had been hostile to him.

Meanwhile, Financial Secretary John Tsang is expected to ­inform Beijing officials during his four-day trip to the capital starting tomorrow of his ­intention to resign to pave the way to run for chief executive.

James Tien said he heard from people who knew former permanent secretary for civil service Rebecca Lai Ko Wing-yee that she had joined Tsang’s campaign team.