In Hong Kong’s chief executive race, potential backers wait for Beijing’s nod

Pro-establishment figures remember embarrassment of 2012 and hold tongues for now, as pan-democrats also wait and see

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 January, 2017, 11:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 11:12am

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s resignation on Thursday will not mean Beijing-friendly politicians will turn into cheerleaders in the coming weeks. And their pro-democracy opponents are also likely to hide their political pom-poms until Beijing clearly signals how it wants the March poll to turn out.

Many pro-Beijingers still vividly remember the painful 2012 election. Back then, they were quick to publicly endorse Henry Tang Ying-yen,who was seen as Beijing’s choice for the chief executive post. But many eventually made a U-turn after Tang found himself mired in a flurry of scandals, losing Beijing’s trust and subsequently the top job to underdog Leung Chun-ying.

“I don’t think the pro-establishment figures would openly endorse any aspirants at the early stage this time,” said lawmaker Dr Priscilla Leung Mei-fun of the Beijing-friendly Business and Professionals Alliance.

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“What happened five years ago was too embarrassing.”

Her sentiments were shared by several businessmen, who had refrained from openly backing the current underdog Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, whose resignation remained up in the air as the central government had yet to approve it, a month after he submitted it.

“We want someone who is familiar with finance and economics to be our next leader,” said a pro-establishment businessman who preferred not to be named. “But it seems to be a bad idea to publicly support Tsang after so many sources from the central government suggesting he is a no-go.”

Veteran lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, of the Beijing-friendly Federation of Trade Unions, said his group would definitely not hand their nominations to Lam “automatically” even though the messages he had received from Beijing were clear that the outgoing chief secretary was the favoured candidate.

“We still need to meet and exchange views with all aspirants on different policies before deciding whom to nominate,” Wong said.

The pro-establishment bloc was not the only one awaiting Beijing’s clear signal. Pan-democrats also appeared to be assessing how to maximise the impact of the 326 votes they earned in the 1,194-member election committee that will pick the city’s next leader.

“Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, who had opposed any “small-circle election”, shocked many by declaring he might consider running for the top job in an apparent bid to stop his allies being “kingmakers”.

Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting has proposed a “public nomination plan”, asking the pan-democrat voters to nominate the aspirant who could secure at least 50,000 signatures from Hongkongers.

The pro-democracy bloc sent Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit and Democrat Albert Ho Chun-yan to run for the top job in 2007 and 2012 respectively to force other candidates to answer questions on the city’s democratic progress at election forums.

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But this year some hoped they could vote strategically to block another hardliner from winning the city’s top job. Lawmaker Charles Mok, representing the information technology sector, said his camp might only decide on its next move – especially on whether to field anyone – when all other players had shown their hand.

“If eventually only two people managed to get in the race –say Lam and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee – of course the pan-democrats could send their own representative to run,” Mok said. If the duelling was between these two hardliners, voters would not have a real choice, he said.

“But many voters we approached so far still hope to make an impact with their votes,” he added.

Ip, a New People’s Party legislator, had caused a stir when she promised to revive the legislation of the national security bill if she were elected.

Accountancy sector lawmaker Kenneth Leung, Mok’s colleague in the Professionals Guild, said their approach was to make the election more competitive so Hongkongers could pick “a more acceptable” leader via the committee.

Stopping short of nominating Tsang or another aspirant seen as a liberal, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, Leung said he would consider nominating the candidate whose manifesto was aligned to the key demands of pan-democrats, which include genuine universal suffrage.

“I understand that not everyone in the camp would like to nominate [pro-establishment] candidates, and I respect that,” he said. “But I hope we could all use our votes flexibly to achieve the goal and make a difference.”