Rita Fan says those speculating Xi Jinping backs John Tsang after handshakes lack understanding

Warning from influential Beijing loyalist comes as her preferred candidate for Hong Kong leader, ex-chief secretary Carrie Lam, secures 579 nominations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2017, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2017, 1:49pm

People who speculated that John Tsang Chun-wah was President Xi Jinping’s choice to become Hong Kong’s next leader based on the handshakes they had exchanged were taking advantage of Hongkongers’ lack of understanding of mainland politics “to their own ends”, an influential Beijing loyalist has told the Post.

The warning by Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the city’s sole delegate to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, came as former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, whom she openly supports, secured nearly four times the minimum number of nominations to qualify as an official candidate in the chief executive race.

Watch: Carrie Lam heckled by protesters

Lam on Tuesday submitted 579 nominations from the 1,194-member Election Committee that will pick the city’s next leader on March 26, just 22 short of the final number of votes she will need to win the race. On Wednesday, however, seven of those nominations were deemed invalid.

Widely seen as Beijing’s preferred choice, Lam lags behind former finance minister Tsang in the popularity stakes, but enjoys solid backing among pro-establishment forces who dominate the committee that will pick the winner, regardless of mass appeal.

But the counter-narrative among Tsang’s supporters is that despite the evidence of official backing for Lam through Beijing officials, Xi might think differently.

“In Hong Kong, there are newspapers that keep on saying John Tsang is the choice of Mr Xi because they have shaken hands and that Carrie Lam is just the choice of [National People’s Congress chairman] Zhang Dejiang and [the director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong] Zhang Xiaoming,” Fan told the Post.

Watch: Xi Jinping shook John Tsang’s hand

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Fan, a senior adviser to Lam’s campaign, was referring to the much-publicised handshakes Xi offered to Tsang at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank meeting in 2015 and at the G20 conference in Hangzhou last year.

Tsang himself has described the handshakes as “a very strong sign of encouragement”.

Fan said the rumours based on the over-interpretation of the handshakes had prompted Zhang to hold a recent meeting in Shenzhen to clarify that Lam was the only candidate with Beijing’s blessing. “Anyone who has any understanding of Chinese politics will know that today in China, no major decision can be made by anybody except Mr Xi,” she said.

Watch: Carrie Lam presents her manifesto

“[Those who spread the ­rumours] are obviously making use of the lack of understanding of most Hong Kong people on Chinese politics to their own ends.”

Lam’s relations with the pan-democrats have been upset by reports that Beijing’s liaison office has actively lobbied for her from behind the scenes. But Fan said Lam was blameless as she was not in a position to ask the liaison ­office to halt such lobbying.

She argued that Election Committee members could easily ­resist such lobbying.

She said Beijing wanted someone competent and strong to ­provide a bridge ­between the city and the mainland, and protect ­national security, instead of “a nice guy or woman smiling at everybody”.

Carrie Lam tries to shed ‘CY 2.0’ label with final manifesto, but old complaints prove hard to shake

Fan, who has been critical of outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, remained confident that Lam would not follow in the footsteps of the unpopular ­incumbent, saying the front runner had a “totally different” personality from Leung, who was unable to cultivate cordial relations with the pan-democrats.

On Tuesday, Tsang’s campaign office said he had no comment to make on Fan’s remarks.

However, accountancy lawmaker Kenneth Leung, who helped coordinate the 326 pan-democratic voters in the Election Committee, rebutted them.

“Many voters do have business and investment on the mainland. The pressure exerted by the Liaison Office on voters is indirect,” he said, adding the office should not meddle in the city’s election.