In Hong Kong leadership battle, will Carrie Lam inherit Leung Chun-ying’s pro-Beijing supporters?

Albert Cheng believes the chief secretary will be the establishment candidate in the 2017 leadership race, and the pro-democracy camp, while it did well in recent polls, is no kingmaker

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 7:07pm

The political changes in Hong Kong of late are a strong reminder that a week is a long time in politics. Last Friday, Leung Chun-ying announced that he would not seek a second term in the upcoming chief executive election. The decision came out of the blue; even Leung himself and the central government’s liaison office only received the direct order from Beijing the day before.

Leung cited “family reasons” when he dropped the bombshell, attributing it to his recently hospitalised daughter. It is well known that Chai-yan is emotionally unstable. She is understood to have been a patient in the Prince of Wales Hospital for at least a month. With Leung and his wife finally caught on camera visiting their daughter, the question was, “Why now?” It seems the leak was “scheduled” right before the announcement.

Uncertainty prevails in Hong Kong after Leung Chun-ying decides not to seek second term

Political gossip has it that Leung had lost favour with Beijing and that the Xi Jinping (習近平) government’s trump card to stop him from being re-elected was to formally charge Song Lin (宋林), the former chairman of China Resources, with corruption. Song had reportedly been close to Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), head of the liaison office, and was said to have supported Leung in 2012.

Pro-establishment media suggested that Leung’s dropping out was a way for Beijing to cool the pro-democracy camp’s “Anyone But CY” campaign. But Leung’s decision has not changed the pan-democrats’ stance, as they are not just going after the disliked chief executive, but also the autocratic leadership he represents. Of course, the latest political twist has given the pro-establishment camp a way out, as they are no longer required to vote for the unpopular Leung.

Indeed, the Election Committee poll results show that many in the pro-establishment camp have abandoned Leung. Most of those who voted for him in 2012 were booted out, and the surviving ones were elected by thin margins. The professional constituencies, including the architectural and surveying subsector, which are supposed to be dominated by the pro-establishment camp, saw the election of a few pro-democrats this time. In fact, the pan-democrats gained a record 326 seats on the Election Committee. Leung has no one to blame but himself for the result.

Initially, the chief executive election was set to be a contest between Leung and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. Leung’s withdrawl has made John Tsang Chun-wah a threat. He is rumoured to lack support from Beijing. Pro-Beijing newspapers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao allocated little space to Tsang’s resignation as financial secretary. The ploy is apparently to portray Tsang as arrogantly going against Beijing’s will. Speaking to reporters before the Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, Leung implied that Tsang was being irresponsible to have resigned before the completion of the 2017 budget.

Ip, meanwhile, is pushing her own campaign even though she has only a slim chance of being elected.

Can Regina Ip come back from the brink to claim Hong Kong’s top job?

Given all the recent twists and turns, the Tung Chee-hwa camp, Leung and the liaison office have reportedly formed an alliance and switched to supporting Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who many believe will soon join the race. Leung had reportedly “passed on” his supporters to her before announcing he would not run.

On Tuesday, Lam received a “symbolic hug” from Tung Chee-hwa at an official public gathering, which to many indicated his support. Unless Beijing gives her a red light, Lam is all set. Even if the well-respected former judge Woo Kwok-hing manages to get 150 votes to earn a nomination, the election is destined to be a battle between Tsang and Lam.

Beijing and the art of surprise-free elections

The pro-democracy camp has gained a huge victory in the Election Committee polls. It might not be a kingmaker, but it could well provide a tipping point in the chief executive election. The pan-democrats should nominate Woo, to pressure the other candidates and avoid this election turning into a fight between the two interest camps, which would see any benefits for the public being pushed aside.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]