City Beat

John Tsang must show Beijing he is made of the right stuff to lead Hong Kong

Carrie Lam’s expected resignation this week is likely to be a turning point in the chief executive election contest and force the central government to act on the financial secretary’s resignation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 4:39pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2017, 9:54pm

It has become a regular practice for Beijing officials to come down south, from time to time, to feel the pulse of the city.

As the March election for the city’s next leader approaches, Wang Guangya, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was this time here to meet separately with two major contenders for Hong Kong’s top job – Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who is expected to resign later this week, and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who submitted his resignation a month ago but is still waiting for Beijing’s approval, without which it would be difficult to officially announce his bid.

While it was believed that Wang had further discussions with Lam on her election plan, it was also reported that, for the second time, he had tried to persuade Tsang not to run. The first time Wang gave Tsang a similar message was in November when the finance minister visited Beijing.

It’s hard to imagine that Beijing does not trust someone it has kept as the city’s No 3 official

However, the Post also learned that both were attempts at persuasion only, since Beijing, in theory, cannot ban Tsang from running if he insists on going ahead. Just as no employer at the end of the day can forbid any employee from quitting, it’s expected that Beijing, sooner or later, must approve Tsang’s resignation. But when?

The turning point may come soon. Later this week, if Lam resigns as expected, it could put Beijing in a somewhat awkward position: should it approve Lam only, or both her and Tsang?

It’s here that both Beijing and Tsang need more political wisdom and greater mutual understanding.

Various interpretations have emerged in the past weeks that Tsang has been waiting for approval. Some see it as a reflection of Beijing not fully trusting him.

But Tsang’s supporters counter that, saying he could not have been in the important position of financial secretary all these years if that were the case. And to be fair to Tsang, that is indeed a valid argument. It’s hard to imagine that Beijing does not trust someone it has kept as the city’s No 3 official. However, it’s also true that of all the top government posts, the chief executive position is the most political in nature, so the qualifications required are very different.

Many noted that in his recent interview with Bauhinia Magazine, Wang added one more criteria to a list he outlined four years ago of required qualities for Hong Kong’s future leader: love the country and Hong Kong; win public support; be competent in governing; and now also, have the trust of the central government.

To be frank, these conditions are nothing novel and more about common sense. But for political figures, particularly those who are to join the leadership race, they are substantial and concrete. The best reference must be the one President Xi Jinping raised while meeting outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during his last duty visit to Beijing in late December – that the central government appreciates his efforts in safeguarding “national sovereignty, national security and the development interests of the nation”, including cracking down on any independence attempt.

“To run or not to run, that’s the question.” It was the dilemma Tsang admitted he faced in October when asked by reporters. Tsang may not be Beijing’s most preferred candidate, but it will be up to him to win enough trust to prove he can be Hong Kong’s leader as well, once he decides to run and starts campaigning.

Beijing, too, has to face the question of tackling Tsang’s resignation and not holding off on it for too long.

Whatever the end result, for the good of Hong Kong, we can only hope for a competitive election focusing on constructive policy debate instead of one bogged down by smear campaigns.