City Beat

Will Beijing ask for the impossible in Hong Kong’s chief executive election race?

With the central government giving no hint about its preference and likely contenders remaining tight-lipped, the endless speculation is no surprise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 4:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 12:38am

In politics, there must be a purpose to saying or not saying something.

It’s especially so when it comes to one major talking point in the city from now until early next year – as the government last week announced that the next chief executive election is scheduled for March 26, 2017. The irony is, with less than one year to go, no one so far has explicitly expressed his or her intention to run. Neither has Beijing given any hint whatsoever about its preference.

That’s why the focus is unavoidably on incumbent Leung Chun-ying as both his supporters and opponents make noises out of different considerations, but he himself is also tight-lipped on his intentions.

Beijing’s deliberate silence is believed to stem from one obvious consideration: to prevent this “who will be the next CE” question from becoming a burning election issue for the September Legislative Council polls. Just imagine: once “Will you support Leung for a second term? Who do you think can be an alternative?” become the must-ask and must-answer questions for whoever is interested in a Legco seat, the governance of this already relatively weak administration will only be further hampered.

Yet the fact that it is not practical for one to show his or her ambition for the top job without Beijing’s blessing doesn’t mean nothing can be done.

Messages from the pro-establishment side ... reveal the many difficulties and frustrations the camp is facing

The pan-democratic camp’s purpose is pretty straightforward – to get rid of Leung. Messages from the pro-establishment side seem more subtle and, to a certain extent, reveal the many difficulties and frustrations the camp is facing.

Some recent developments could be quite telling.

Over the weekend, the biggest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), held its bi-annual “road map brainstorming” meeting in Shenzhen. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was invited to join.

While DAB heavyweights have been trying hard to defend the chief executive against allegations that he exerted pressure on airport staff to bypass security protocol and allow his daughter to retrieve her left-behind hand-carry luggage, party chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king revealed they discussed with Lam in Shenzhen the governance difficulties and problems of the Leung administration, as well as future DAB-government relations. Naturally, the weaker the government is, the more the DAB needs to consider whether or how to “support” the Leung administration, including the chief executive himself, so as not to lose votes.

This brainstorming was important for Lee herself too as she earlier resigned from the government’s top advisory body, the Executive Council, in order to prepare for the Legco elections. But there was no lack of far-fetched questions as to whether she intended to run for chief executive instead. Lee had to respond that it would be good for Hong Kong to have a female leader someday, but it was not the right timing for her yet.

Beijing may just ask for the impossible in urging the pro-establishment camp to unite and back the government and Leung during this election year

Former security chief-turned-lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee earlier told reporters she believed Beijing this time would allow real competition, but stressed she would focus on the September battle first, even though she is seen by many as a possible “black horse” candidate for the 2017 race. But she was frank enough to admit that the “support Leung or not” question would be taken by different parties to canvass votes in the coming months.

Meanwhile the “who Beijing will eventually pick” guessing game continues with the seemingly never-ending speculation as to whether Beijing favours a hardliner like Leung, or a softer alternative like Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, or some others.

Leung’s supporters surely see the need to do something now. Lau Ping-cheung, former deputy campaign manager for his 2012 race, recently suggested that unless Beijing said no, Leung would definitely go ahead and seek a second term. This was seen as an effort from Leung’s camp to manage his rivals’ expectations.

Interests decide political decisions. In this regard, Beijing may just ask for the impossible in urging the pro-establishment camp to unite and back the government and Leung during this election year. This is an even more complicated governance issue of Hong Kong that Beijing has to seriously tackle.