In Hong Kong leadership race, John Tsang and Regina Ip backtrack on national security, political reform

Underdogs revise their platforms on contentious issues as they seek support from the pan-democrat camp

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 11:24pm

With just two days before nominations begin in Hong Kong’s chief executive race, underdogs John Tsang Chun-wah and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee softened their stance on Sunday over the controversial issues of national security legislation and political reform.

Their backtracking was seen as an attempt to lobby for nominations from the pan-democratic camp, which occupies more than a quarter of the seats on the 1,194-member Election Committee, which will pick the city’s next leader on March 26. A candidate needs 150 nominations to be eligible and then 601 to win the contest.

John Tsang looks to seek pan-democrats’ approval ahead of election bid

Despite the adjustments, some pan-democrat electors told the Post it was too early to say whom they would nominate. Others in the camp had said earlier they were more likely to endorse Tsang or another contender, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, who spent Sunday meeting pan-democrat electors.

Front runner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the city’s former No 2 official seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate, will roll out her preliminary platform on Monday.

A day before Lam’s announcement, Ip unveiled the updated version of her platform published two months ago. The latest document included the pro-establishment lawmaker’s new proposals on social welfare and small and medium enterprises.

On achieving one person, one vote to elect Hong Kong’s leader, Ip promised to relaunch the political reform process, with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s previous stringent framework forming the “basis of discussion”. She believed the national legislature would make new decisions in light of developments in the city.

The statement was in stark contrast to Ip’s vow two months ago that she would relaunch the process based on Beijing’s ruling of August 31, 2014, which stipulated that there should be only two or three candidates who must first gain majority support from a 1,200-member nominating committee.

Democrats rejected that framework as they said it would allow Beijing to screen candidates before Hongkongers were given a choice.

Tsang says he’s still optimistic despite Lam’s big backing

Explaining her adjustment, Ip said: “I think Beijing’s decision should not be seen as a framework that restricts future development ... I hope this [updated proposal] will be more acceptable for the pan-democrats.”

Ip revealed that some young pan-democrat professionals had promised to nominate her.

The remarks from Ip – who resigned as the city’s security minister in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets and forced a controversial national security bill to be shelved – came hours after Tsang, the former financial secretary, backtracked on his earlier statement about revisiting the legislation by 2020.

Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s constitution, the Hong Kong government is obliged to enact laws prohibiting treason, secession, sedition and subversion. Critics fear such a law will curb freedoms.

When he unveiled his platform last Monday, Tsang said that if elected, he hoped to get the political reform and national security bills ready before the 2020 Legislative Council polls, which displeased the pan-democrats.

Tsang said on Sunday that while he still hoped to push the political reform package through Legco by 2020, he had “little confidence about” passing national security laws by then.

“There’s no problem if we cannot finish it before the new administration’s term expires [in 2022], but at least we would have finished the basic work,” he said.

Pan-democrat backing is critical for Tsang and Woo to join the chief executive race, as Lam looks set to take the majority of pro-Beijing nominations.

Pan-democratic lawmaker Charles Mok, an Election Committee member, said despite Ip’s adjustment, his camp was still unlikely to support the pro-establishment lawmaker.

“We need to look at candidates’ track records ... and according to opinion polls, Tsang is the most popular candidate,” he said.

Last week a source told the Post that National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang, the third-ranking leader in the Communist Party’s Politburo, had told Hong Kong’s business leaders and pro-establishment figures in a meeting in Shenzhen that Lam was Beijing’s preferred candidate.

Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, an NPCSC delegate and one of Lam’s advisers, declined to confirm if such a meeting took place.

But she said if the reports were true, Zhang’s trip showed the central government wanted to brush off rumours suggesting other candidates had received Beijing’s backing.