Beijing worried no candidate can win strong mandate in chief executive race, Hong Kong politician says

Local politician says that may be a factor in delays in approving John Tsang’s resignation; another politician suggests there could be a dark horse candidate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 6:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 January, 2017, 12:39pm

Beijing estimates that none of the potential candidates for chief executive can secure a clear majority to become Hong Kong’s next leader in March, according to a local politician, and that is a factor for why it has been holding back on approving John Tsang Chun-wah’s resignation as financial secretary.

Tsang tendered his resignation on December 12 and hinted that he would seek to succeed his boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who made a shock announcement that he would not seek re-election.

Tsang’s move came days after the city’s No 2 official, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, said she would “reconsider” whether to run so that the administration’s current policies could be sustained.

Beijing has remained silent over Tsang’s resignation, leaving his expected bid in limbo.

New People’s Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing are the only people to have announced their bids.

The Election Committee’s 1,194 members, a quarter of whom are from the democratic camp, will decide who will govern Hong Kong in the next five years on March 26.

A local politician who is well-connected with mainland officials handling Hong Kong affairs said Beijing’s initial assessment was that its “iron-clad votes” in the committee – those who will strictly follow its preference in the chief executive race – were fewer than 500.

“The central government wants the winner to secure an overwhelming majority to ensure a stronger mandate,” the politician said. “It hopes the winner can muster more than 700 votes.”

But at this stage, Beijing was worried that none of the potential candidate was able to clinch more than the 601 votes required to win in the first round of voting, let alone 700, the politician said.

According to the electoral rules, if no one wins in the first round of the election, the top two candidates will enter a second round of voting on the same day.

A source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Post that Lam was “proactively considering” a bid for the top job, in which she would prefer to win through her own efforts rather than relying on Beijing’s endorsement or blessing.

However, veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu warned that could be wishful thinking on Lam’s part.

“I understand that Beijing knows that in a free competition, Lam might not have as many votes as Tsang ... so the central government will want to play a part behind the scenes,” Lau said.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the mainland’s top think tank on Hong Kong affairs, said these uncertainties explained why the central government “needs time to assess the situation more clearly” before approving Tsang’s resignation.

“Beijing could not stop him from quitting or running ... but if it wants a competitive race, it needs to create a level playing field for other aspirants too,” he said.

Lam said she would only make a decision on the race after she finished helping Leung finalise his final policy address, which will be unveiled on January 18.

Lau dismissed the suggestion that Beijing would wait for Lam’s decision before approving Tsang’s departure, as it would be seen as endorsing Lam.

It is understood that on Tuesday Shen Chong, who heads the coordination department in Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, informed the Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that while approval of Tsang’s resignation would be “only a matter of time”, the financial chief did not have “the central government’s blessing”.

With none of the potential candidates seemingly able to win by a comfortable margin, a second source, who has good connections with the mainland authorities, revealed that some Beijing officials were pondering the possibility of finding a candidate who is acceptable to all sides.

MTRC chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang and executive councillor Bernard Chan are names that have been floated recently within the pro-establishment camp as alternative candidates.

After Leung announced he would not seek re-election, Ma said he “does not have the heart, the intention nor any plan to” to run for chief executive, adding that his family would not support him taking up any government post.

In October, Bernard Chan also reiterated that he had no plan to give up his business and run for the top job.