City Beat

Unanswered questions and mixed messages: making sense of the race for Hong Kong’s top job

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and retiring Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing caused a stir when they announced they may run for Chief Executive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 9:06pm

Hong Kong was taken aback when the two Tsangs – Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and retiring Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing – declared their intention to run for the city’s top job.

The immediate question was why the duo would be the first to shed some light on who will throw their hat into the ring for chief executive, instead of incumbent Leung Chun-ying.

A few days later, we saw Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng yuet-ngor pay an unprecedented visit to the Department of Justice. “Lam thanked the DOJ for upholding the rule of law in Hong Kong and providing professional legal advice to the government,” a brief press release by the government said.

It raised many eyebrows as the department is currently at the centre of a political storm over whether a returning officer has the legal right to disqualify certain independence advocates from running for next month’s Legco elections. It also triggered another round of guessing as to why Lam would take the spotlight instead of Leung, the chief executive, who is supposed to be the direct boss of the justice department.

The real answer may not be known, but Lam at least sent out a message that as the chief secretary, she is the head of civil servants, and she stands by her colleagues firmly when they’re under pressure.

This could win her greater support from the government workforce as well as from Beijing.

And then we saw Leung declare in his latest media interview last week that he would welcome “competition” in next year’s chief executive election. So the “competition” has started – in terms of who will have the last laugh by winning Beijing’s blessing?

Tsang, the financial secretary, described the future post he might take over from his current boss as a “bad job” because of the criticism that comes with it, yet he was willing to accept it “if it can help to contribute to society”. Arguably, isn’t he already contributing? Why bother going after a “bad job”?

Tsang, the Legco president, appeared more straightforward: “If it turns out it’s both necessary and possible for me to stand as a candidate to offer a genuine choice”, was how he put it.

The two share something in common which is an open secret to all – they dislike Leung. And reading between the lines of Jasper Tsang’s comments, the message was loud and clear – he’ll be the last backup to challenge Leung if the incumbent eventually turns out to be Beijing’s only choice, which may make John Tsang, Lam and others hesitate or even be persuaded not to go further.

The two Tsangs were therefore seen to be with the so-called “ABC” or “Anyone But CY” campaign. It also proved that the pro-establishment camp is by no means monolithic, and Beijing is well aware of this reality.

So what kind of “competition” would the leadership up north tolerate?

Jasper Tsang claimed he was told by certain Beijing officials that there would be “competition” this time. But those who understand China’s politics well enough should know it all depends on what “competition” means to Beijing – whether it’s allowing two or more candidates from the pro-establishment camp, or a sole pro-establishment candidate versus one from the pan-democratic camp who will have no chance of winning.

The fierce “competition” – or, to be exact, “infighting” – within the pro-establishment camp back in 2012 between supporters of Leung and his rival Henry Tang Ying-yan is still fresh on many minds. Leung’s subsequent efforts to bridge divides and build up a united “Hong Kong camp” proved to be mission impossible.

As China’s most open city, how Hong Kong picks its next leader will be widely monitored by the international community as a test of Beijing’s commitment to the “one country, two systems” policy. With the 19th Congress of the Communist Party approaching next year, the Beijing leadership understandably has to assess carefully the pros and cons of the level of “competition” in Hong Kong’s leadership election, before finally making up its mind – likely to happen after the September Legco polls.

In this regard, it can be said that the two Tsangs are making a pre-emptive move before it’s too late, while Leung and Lam are similarly at the starting block, all ready to go.