With barely three weeks to go before 1,194 members of the Election Committee choose the next chief executive on March 26, it is almost a foregone conclusion that former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will land the top job.
Over the past several weeks, Beijing has gone all out to help her win. Pro-Beijing newspapers have endorsed her and are extensively covering her campaign. Last month, no less than Zhang Dejiang (張德江), the National People’s Congress chairman and the state leader who oversees local affairs, made it clear to Beijing loyalists that the Communist Party backs Lam. And in the run-up to the nomination period, which ended last week, officials from Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong were known to have phoned some Election Committee members to “remind” them to nominate Lam.
Given her competence and can-do spirit, I have never doubted Lam’s ability to win the chief executive race through her own efforts. Beijing is doing her a disservice with its lobbying, as the perception that she is the “anointed’ candidate can only hurt her popularity. Lam admitted as much in an interview with the Post last week.
Beijing has squandered a golden opportunity to mend its rift with Hongkongers. When the unpopular Leung Chun-ying announced he would not seek a second term as chief executive, many people who had expected Beijing to prop up a hardline leader in Hong Kong were pleasantly surprised. The news even created some goodwill towards the central government.
But Beijing considers the chief executive race to be a battle over jurisdiction of the city and wants zero risk in the jockeying for the top job. No surprises will be tolerated on March 26 – even if it means hurting its preferred candidate’s standing with the people. At his meetings last month with some Hong Kong politicians, Wang Guangya ( 王光亞 ), director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said it was normal for candidates’ popularity to fluctuate. In other words, Beijing wants to ensure Lam’s victory, even at the cost of undermining her popularity.
Beijing has been struggling to find the recipe for winning the hearts and minds of young people in Hong Kong since the Occupy Central protests. But its visible hand in the chief executive election is set to further alienate the young and educated Hongkongers who form the majority of the support base for John Tsang Chun-wah, the underdog in the leadership race with the most mass appeal. In a survey commissioned by the Post early last month, a majority of respondents aged 18-44 backed the former financial secretary.
Worse, some Beijing loyalists who peddle the rumour that the central government does not trust Tsang are escalating their campaign against him by linking him and his supporters to “external political forces”. Commentaries in pro-Beijing newspapers also queried whether Tsang really “loves China” and “loves Hong Kong”, as 80 per cent of his nominators come from the pan-democratic camp, or what those newspapers call the “opposition camp”.
This comes a mere seven months after Wang pinned hopes on pan-democrats becoming a “constructive force” in Hong Kong. The Beijing loyalists are thus offsetting the goodwill Wang and other pragmatic mainland officials were nurturing.
Former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee made a good point after she crashed out of the chief executive race last week. Asked if Beijing had interfered in the city’s leadership race, she said she hoped the central government would allow Hong Kong people to practise “two systems”.
Spot on, Regina.
Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor