CITY BEAT TAMMY TAM
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Zhang Dejiang’s Hong Kong visit: The search for clues on the city’s next chief executive race

Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong was careful not to give anything away on the controversial issue during his three-day visit to the city

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2016, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 May, 2016, 12:01pm

“I come to see, to listen and to speak”, Zhang Dejiang told Hongkongers last week at the start of his three-day visit to the city. He kept his word, except that when it came to the highly contentious issue of next year’s chief executive election, he only saw and listened but chose not to speak.

On expressing support for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s performance, however, the state leader in charge of Hong Kong policies was not only vocal but pro-active as well.

That was reflected in what he chose to visit or attend: a briefing by the Development Bureau on the city’s land supply and major projects; a trip to the science park to encourage high-tech development; a visit to an elderly home to learn about the city’s welfare system and ageing problems; and an inspection of a new public housing project. These were all areas and issues prioritised by Leung’s administration.

While Leung and his supporters have been encouraged by the feedback from the National People’s Congress chairman, there are people who do not see it as Beijing’s blessing for the incumbent to seek a second term at this stage. The reality is, everyone seems to be looking for clues from Zhang’s short stay as to what will be the outcome of the election next March.

In theory, we still have more than 10 months to go before next year’s chief executive poll. However, it’s an open secret that unofficial campaigning by possible candidates has already started, and Zhang’s visit prompted some interesting developments in that respect.

First, those who pay enough attention to Hong Kong politics won’t disagree that Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has started jockeying for the top job – from his popular budget speech in March that was widely seen as his mini-manifesto, to his recent high-profile visit to Rex Tso Sing-yu, Hong Kong’s “wonder kid” boxer, to show his support for “localism” in the form of the fine traditions and spirit of Hong Kong in a bid to win hearts and minds.

At the same time, certain “gestures” by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor also attracted quite a bit of public attention, especially her visit to Sichuan a week ahead of Zhang’s arrival.

Lam was officially there to wrap up the Hong Kong government’s post-earthquake reconstruction projects, but it was her candid sharing with the accompanying media pack that raised eyebrows.

For months she had insisted she would go back home to be a good wife and caring mother after finishing this term, but in Sichuan she had reporters abuzz with her indefinite answer: “I’ll tell you my plan [whether to run or not] in 12 or 13 months.”

One episode during the trip also became a topic for political gossip. Lam showed members of the Hong Kong delegation a photo taken eight years ago of then vice-president Xi Jinping shaking hands with her in Sichuan while inspecting Hong Kong’s quake relief efforts. She joked that if the photo was leaked, “it understandably could be a big deal”, apparently acknowledging that wild speculation would be inevitable.

As a result, some critics interpreted it as Lam’s “to retreat in order to advance” tactic: on the one hand she was ready to go back to her husband and son, but on the other, that photo also sent out a subtle message that she had Beijing’s trust and was capable of handling relations with the mainland. Helping with Sichuan’s reconstruction, for example, was highly appreciated by top leaders.

What about the incumbent chief executive, then?

While Zhang, as expected, was careful not to give away anything that could be open to conflicting interpretations of Beijing’s preference for the next chief executive, he also ignored those “ABC” (“anybody but CY”) calls from the pan democrats as well as some pro-establishment circles. This, apparently, was good enough for Leung.

Beijing’s final decision is still unpredictable, but what’s certain is that with Zhang’s first-hand experience of “seeing and listening”, the central government will come up with a better idea as to what specific qualities and qualifications are required of the next person to lead the city forward.

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