Hopes and fears: Zhang Dejiang visits Hong Kong

Zhang ‘navigated fine line’ on CY’s performance

With only 10 months until the chief executive election, every ­remark about Leung made by ­Beijing’s third-highest official came under close scrutiny.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 12:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 12:03am

State leader Zhang Dejiang navigated a fine line when commenting on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s performance during his three-day visit that ended on Thursday, observers said.

With only 10 months until the chief executive election, every ­remark about Leung made by ­Beijing’s third-highest official came under close scrutiny.

In some quarters, his words ­affirming Leung’s achievements in facilitating the city’s economic and social development sparked speculation that they equalled ­endorsement for him to run for a second term. But two leading mainland advisers on Hong Kong affairs cautioned against over ­interpreting Zhang’s remarks, saying they should not be seen as Beijing’s formal backing of Leung for another five years at the helm.

‘Ball is in Beijing’s court’, Hong Kong pan-democrats say after meeting with Zhang Dejiang

In a closed-door meeting with Leung and senior officials at ­government headquarters in ­Admiralty on Tuesday, Zhang ­reiterated that President Xi Jinping had already given his “full endorsement” to Leung ­during his annual duty visit to the capital last December.

The nation’s top legislator said the central government was satisfied with the work of the chief executive and the Hong Kong ­government.

Then, commenting on the chief executive’s performance during a banquet speech on ­Wednesday, Zhang said Leung’s administration “has spotted where the problems lie, and is ­trying its best to foster economic development”.

“The policies adopted [by Leung] have started working, gradually making some achievements,” he said. Zhang made the remarks an hour after four pan-democrats called for Leung’s exit from office at a pre-banquet cocktail reception.

In his speech to about 220 representatives from various sectors at the government headquarters yesterday, Zhang called on Hongkongers to support Leung and his ­administration.

Zhang stressed that Leung was elected in accordance with the Basic Law and appointed by the central government. “We should provide room for the SAR government to do its job, rather than just finding faults with the government,” Zhang said.

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Executive councillor Cheung Chi-kong, a key Leung supporter, said Zhang had clearly expressed his satisfaction with Leung’s performance but it was up to the public to judge if it amounted to the central government’s support for Leung to serve another five years.

“For me, at least it’s not a negative signal,” Cheung said.

Professor Qi Pengfei, vice-chairman of mainland think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Zhang’s comments on Leung’s performance were in line with the central government’s evaluation since he took office in 2012.

“We should not interpret it as the central government’s backing Leung for a second term,” Qi said.

Another association vice-chairman, Professor Lau Siu-kai , agreed Zhang’s remarks should not be interpreted as Beijing’s endorsement for a second term.

“If Beijing has such an intention, it would leave the public the impression that the upcoming chief executive election is unfair,” Lau said. “If Beijing gives its blessing at this stage to Leung for another term it could spark backlash and mass protests.”

Lau, former head of the Central Policy Unit, believed Zhang deliberately gave a boost to Leung and his administration because of the central government’s recognition of the mounting calls for the chief executive to step down or not serve a second term. Leung has not said if he will run again.

On Wednesday, news portal HK01 reported that Zhang was “dissatisfied” with Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah’s briefing at the leader’s meeting with top officials on Tuesday. The report said the time Zhang spent on responding to Tsang’s presentation of his work was longer than that on Leung’s and those of Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung.

Tsang, tipped as a potential candidate in the forthcoming chief executive poll, yesterday said he would not comment on what was said as it was a closed-door meeting. “Publicly talking about what was said is unethical. I will not do anything that’s unethical,” he said.

Leung said the report about the state leader’s dissatisfaction with Tsang’s presentation was untrue.

A person familiar with the situation said it was natural for Zhang, who was responsible for industry and energy when he served as vice-premier from 2008 to 2013, to care more about economic issues during the meeting with the city’s senior officials.

Lau Siu-kai said the report was an indication of the undercurrents of the upcoming chief executive race. “But that could backfire as some Hongkongers will suspect Beijing has a preference for the chief executive election,” he said.