Don’t read too much into handshakes with Beijing leaders for Hong Kong’s chief executive race

Though such greetings used to almost confirm state’s choice for top Hong Kong job, it is unlikely to be the case under Xi Jinping’s leadership

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 4:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 10:36pm

Does a handshake with a top state leader equate to Beijing’s blessing for someone who wants Hong Kong’s top job?

The answer is yes and no.

Over the past week, the “handshake” guessing game started again as President Xi Jinping and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying attended the Apec leaders’ summit tens of thousands of miles away in the Peruvian capital of Lima. Naturally, Hongkongers came up with different interpretations of the implications of a Xi-Leung meeting on the sidelines of the summit on Monday morning.

It is sometimes amazing to see how imaginative people can be in trying to figure out the intentions of China’s top leaders through their body language – attaching significant symbolism to simple gestures such as a handshake.

Well, to be fair, the concept of handshake interpretation was introduced to Hongkongers more than 20 years ago when then president Jiang Zemin deliberately singled out Tung Chee-hwa for a handshake during a reception at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The significance was not lost on the media and the public, and surprise gave way to understanding when Tung went on to become Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the 1997 handover.

Since then, such handshakes have gained the significance of almost confirming Beijing’s choice for the city’s next leader.

But is that going to be the case in the Xi era?

After four years of consolidating power, Xi has emerged as a formidable leader with a strong personality and a distinctly different style from that of his predecessors, including Jiang. In dealing with Hong Kong, it is clear enough that Beijing’s policies have undergone certain significant adjustments in recent years, with emphasis on implementing the Basic Law “accurately and comprehensively”, and being firm against any independence attempt.

Moreover, the current leadership is stressing a greater need for unity among not just the pro-establishment camp but also the general public who are considered patriotic.

One recent development is worth noting: it has been reported that Beijing is likely to cut the size of the current business-dominated Hong Kong membership in the country’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. This is a shift, if not yet a departure, from the heavy reliance on the city’s business sector for maintaining social stability during the earlier post-handover years.

Under these new circumstances, a handshake is not meaningless but there is simply no need to get too excited over one.

As far as the city’s current chief executive race is concerned, the handshake game actually started in June last year when President Xi greeted Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in Beijing while attending the opening ceremony of the China-initiated Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Tsang was already sporting the “Xi handshake” label when the two shook hands again in Hangzhou during the G20 summit in September.

And now it seems to be Leung’s turn. After the Lima handshake, he will embark on his annual duty visit to Beijing in late December. More handshakes with Xi and other state leaders are expected. If the Lima meeting was brief due to Xi’s super-busy schedule, the duty visit, as it is designed, will be more comprehensive.

But still, who Beijing will pick as Hong Kong’s next leader is not clear yet. The various camps concerned might do better to put aside wishful thinking by reading too much into the “handshake” symbolism. A surer bet, perhaps, is recognising that no one fits the bill perfectly when it comes to the general criteria set by Beijing for the right candidate: capable of safeguarding the interests and security of the nation and Hong Kong; competent; and acceptable to Hongkongers in general.

All possible “dark horses” need to work much harder to prove themselves before getting that all-important blessing.