Speculation about an early exit for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying should be quelled, at least for now, with National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang giving a positive assessment of Leung’s performance at weekend closed door meetings with Hong Kong political and business elites in Shenzhen.
That said, Zhang’s rare trip to Shenzhen for talks with Leung, his top aides and pro-establishment figures indicates that the chief executive has been sidelined in the all-important political reform debate.
The trip came to light on Saturday after Leung held an impromptu press conference to report his meeting with Zhang, who sits on the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee.
At a meeting with leaders of six major business bodies on Saturday, Zhang took the initiative to raise the issue of moves by some people in Hong Kong to unseat Leung from the apex of power, according to Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily.
Zhang was quoted by an unnamed business leader as saying “that [Leung’s resignation] will not happen. Leung will not step down.” Calling on the business figures to back the administration, he praised Leung for showing a strong sense of commitment and responsibility.
Fresh rumors about Leung’s resignation erupted this month in the midst of rising political heat in the city caused by the row over political reform. One gossip column carried on an online news platform said Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing has been identified as a possible candidate to replace Leung at the top if the chief executive quit.
If the gossip column did not cause a stir, it was because there are no credible signs of a change of mind in Zhongnanhai about Leung’s fate. With the political debate battle at a critical stage, a change at the helm of the special administrative region would be out of character for the Communist Party. Zhang’s remarks about Leung are clearly aimed at killing off the speculation about his resignation.
But while Leung’s job now seems more secure, his role in political reform is increasingly in doubt.
Speaking to reporters after he submitted a report to the NPC Standing Committee on political reform last week, Leung vowed that he and his government would continue to be a “bridge” of communication between the central authorities and different segments of society.
Zhang’s visit is part, indeed perhaps the major part, of a fresh round of political dialogue after Leung officially kick-started the political reform process by sending a report to the NPC top body, together with a report on a five-month-long consultation that ended in April.
On Wednesday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and the other two members in the reform task force will meet with a group of pan-democratic legislators. It remains unclear, however, whether a separate meeting between Lam’s team and Occupy Central organizers will be arranged.
The two sets of meetings are being arranged to serve different purposes.
In his talks with top government leaders and key pro-establishment figures, Zhang hopes to reaffirm that Beijing’s stand on universal suffrage remains unchanged. This position includes opposition to public nomination and a determination that the chief executive must “love China, love Hong Kong.” Although the issue of Occupy Central was apparently not discussed in detail at the various meetings, Zhang gave no sign of softening on the civil disobedience campaign, which he has reportedly said would harm the city.
For the most part hard-line, Zhang appeared to soften when he said the 2017 chief executive should not be seen as the final step of universal suffrage. His remarks are seen as an attempt to persuade pan-democrats and citizens to accept an imperfect reform proposal on the understanding that it will be further improved “one step after another.”
With no indication of early talks between Beijing leaders and the pan-democrats, it falls to Lam and her team to continue dialogue with the democrats. This is also because Leung’s relations with the pan-democrats have turned from bad to worse since he took power in 2012.
However sincere Lam is, the grim reality is that the room for political maneuvering is extremely limited in view of Beijing’s hardened stance. Both the government and the pan-democrats have to show they have and will walk extra miles to avoid a clash over political reform.
A key adviser to the Leung team was pessimistic about the chance of a compromise in view of Beijing’s tough position. More talks at different levels will be held in the next few weeks, but the possibility of a dramatic change of mind of Beijing looks slim.
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