Leung Chun-ying is decidedly hawkish in deadling with the ongoing street protests but two of his top allies are increasingly talking peace.
Is this a sign of disunity in his administration at this critical juncture of the civil disobedience campaign, or is it political posturing by would-be challengers for his job come 2017?
Former security chief Regina Ip, who sits on Leung’s cabinet, broached the idea of negotiation with organizers of the pro-democracy protest.
And Chief Secretary Carrie Lam came forward to represent the government in proposed talks that have since been torpedoed by clashes between the protesters and pro-Beijing groups on Friday.
Contrast these with Leung’s warning that he will use all necessary means to clear the streets if the protesters don’t leave voluntarily.
Ip drove rumors about a prospective run for chief executive in a recent interview with the New York Times, although she has since denied any such intention.
On the other hand, Lam’s star rose after she was named to represent the government in the planned talks, with the Hong Kong Federation of Students welcoming her in a clear snub of Leung, whom they say has lost the trust of Hong Kong people.
Interestingly, the students had demanded Leung meet with them in the early days of the protest.
Leung’s position has been shaky since he won a bitter contest with former chief secretary Henry Tang in 2012.
In recent months, amid Leung’s plummeting approval ratings, speculation has centered on potential challengers in 2017, including Ip, Lam and Executive Councilor Bernard Chan.
Ip heads the New People’s Party under which she was elected to the Legislative Council. Her pro-Beijing credentials include a failed attempt to introduce an anti-sedition law in Hong Kong in 2003 which sparked a mass protest and forced her to quit as security minister.
Still, she had support from a major civil servant group and from a sizeable section of the middle class which she would later use to win election to Legco in October 2012.
Ip is often mentioned as a frontrunner for the chief executive election by virtue of her pro-Beijing politics laced with frequent references to “a harmonious relationship with Beijing”, especially after China issued an election framework that gives it the right to pre-select the candidates.
While Ip and Lam have separately made their case for the government in the ongoing protest in relative political safety, Leung has been exposed to crippling politics.
Even as he faces a revolt in the streets of Hong Kong, he is mindful of his communist bosses in Beijing who expect him to deal with the protesters “with all necessary actions”.
At the same time, he must be thinking of his political future, with his prospects increasingly looking grim.
Already, Leung has stepped aside in the upcoming public consultation over electoral reform in favor of Lam. But it is Leung himself who has to report the outcome of the process to Beijing, meaning he will be the messenger of good news or bad news.
Meanwhile, Lam is waiting for the protest leaders to come to the table and talk peace.
If the meeting takes place, it could be an opportunity for Lam to score some political points in Hong Kong and Beijing.
No doubt a successful outcome for both sides, although unlikely at this time, would anoint her as a savior of Hong Kong.
He is not completely isolated but he could use a few friends just now.
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