City Beat

Why would Beijing trust Carrie Lam but not John Tsang?

Despite backing former chief secretary in Hong Kong leadership race, central government has not shut the door on popular ex-financial secretary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2017, 9:30pm

One big question on many people’s minds, perhaps until today, is: why would Beijing trust Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to lead Hong Kong, but not the more popular John Tsang Chun-wah, who was the city’s No 3 official for nine years?

What is “trust” anyway? Literally, the Oxford Dictionary defines the word as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something”.

However, when it comes to politics, especially in Hong Kong, it can be more complicated than that.

Central government signs off on Carrie Lam’s appointment as Hong Kong’s next chief executive

During the campaign period, while Beijing stressed over and over that only Lam was its preferred choice, some questioned why not a single Beijing official ever openly came out to say Tsang was not to be trusted and for what reason.

At the same time, there was no lack of reports quoting sources listing various worries in Beijing’s mind.

These included Tsang being seen as weaker than Lam in matters of principle such as curbing Hong Kong independence advocacy, and as too “close” to the pan-democrats, since many from the camp nominated and supported him.

Tsang’s camp insisted those sources of information on Beijing’s distrust were not “official” anyway.

Adding to the confusion, Tsang and his supporters touted his handshakes with President Xi Jinping when he was serving as the city’s finance minister as evidence of Beijing’s trust.

Their argument was, given that the two election arch-rivals were both top officials, if Beijing could trust Lam, why not Tsang?

Now that the chief executive election is over, still there is no “official” explanation for Beijing’s reservations about Tsang. But if what some of those “sources” said earlier could be of any reference, it was understood that one major consideration for Beijing’s ambiguity was to try not to push Tsang too much over to the opposition side.

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Understandably, Beijing’s full trust in the city’s leader is vital, as that means more leeway for the chief executive to manoeuvre under the “one country, two systems” principle. In a sense, that is vital to ensure the continuation of Deng Xiaoping’s great model for governing the city. But, frankly speaking, there must be reflection on all sides to understand why there has been such a tricky situation over the concept of “trust”.

If Beijing’s “unofficial” input during the campaign period failed to convince Tsang and his supporters regarding the “trust” issue, those who pinned their last hopes on the possibility of President Xi turning the tables in favour of the popular underdog were apparently blinded by their own wishful thinking.

One who understands China’s politics should know it’s simply impossible for either the liaison office or anyone else to cross the line set by the Communist Party’s top leadership, the Politburo, headed by Xi.

So when Tsang was told by the liaison office or other officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs that he was not the chosen one, such a message carried weight.

Anyway, the election is over now, and there was no “miracle” featuring Tsang.

Over the past week, he has stayed away from the limelight and remained quiet. But what interaction he will have with Beijing in the near future can be very significant.

Only “sources” have been quoted so far, but there has been no “official” effort to discredit Tsang directly by any state leader or senior Beijing representative. That could pave the way to allow both sides flexibility to readjust their future relations – which would mean a lot for Lam’s pledge to “heal the social divide”. For if the popular Tsang turns to the opposition with his mass appeal, it will only make Lam’s unity mission more difficult, if not impossible.

Beijing may have once been unhappy with Tsang over his disobedience, and Tsang may have been upset about his rejection, but it’s now time to move on and rebuild that all-important trust.