21 September 2019
CY Leung (center) appears to be wary about the prospect of Carrie Lam (L) and John Tsang (R) emerging as contenders in the 2017 chief executive election. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ
CY Leung (center) appears to be wary about the prospect of Carrie Lam (L) and John Tsang (R) emerging as contenders in the 2017 chief executive election. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ

Does Leung see his top two officials as potential rivals?

Leung Chun-ying may not have declared his candidacy yet for a second term in office, but his actions are making it clear that he indeed wants to stay on as Hong Kong’s top leader beyond 2017. 

To prepare for the upcoming chief executive election, a key element in Leung’s strategy appears to be pushing his top lieutenants to the sidelines and eliminate possible challenges.

Thus, there have been attempts to get Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary John Tsang to adopt a lower public profile and curb the media chatter on their leadership qualifications. 

Lam and Tsang, the No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in the current regime, both have vast public administrative experience and have acquitted themselves better in the public eye, compared with Leung.

Also, both of them are able to communicate well with pan-democrat lawmakers, a key advantage in Hong Kong’s current polarized political environment.

To prevent growing unfavorable comparisons with his two deputies, Leung is avoiding giving high-profile tasks to the senior officials or steering them to jobs that will keep them preoccupied with non-political issues.

Evidence of this is the latest move by Leung to put Lam in charge of a civic clean-up campaign.

On Thursday, the chief executive unveiled a plan to launch a citywide campaign to clean the streets, with the chief secretary overseeing all the efforts that will kick off next month.

As she takes care of her new task, Lam would be kept away from political discussions, reducing her exposure in the media. 

In recent weeks, Tsang also sought to keep the public spotlight away from finance chief Tsang.

For instance, it was hinted that Tsang had little role to play on issues surrounding Hong Kong’s participation in the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Coming back to Lam, while public hygiene is no doubt important, questions have been raised as to why Leung is setting aside other important issues such as political reforms or social problems.

Some lawmakers said they see little sense in putting the issue of clearing the rubbish above things like a universal pension plan or solving the housing problem.

It is interesting to note that the civic clean-up campaign will be launched just two months before the district council elections in November. Some observers have said the campaign could be aimed at helping DAB in the local elections.

And Lam could effectively function as a cheerleader for the pro-Beijing candidates. 

Lam has not been seen much in public forums after the failed electoral reform vote in the legislature last month.

Her popularity has dropped a bit after she tried to convince Hong Kong people to accept a “fake” universal suffrage plan outlined by Beijing, but she is still recognized as an able civil servant.

Meanwhile, Tsang, who has been Hong Kong’s financial secretary since 2007, is well-known for his ability to oversee the local business and financial sector. He has won praise from experts for his budget planning as he was careful not to spend too much and deplete the city’s financial reserves.

The prudent approach has also won him the trust of Beijing’s top leaders.

It is no secret that Leung did not want Tsang to be in the financial secretary position, as the chief executive saw him as a potential rival.

The wariness about Tsang is the reason why Leung had proposed to establish a deputy financial secretary position.

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping shook hands with Tsang at the launch ceremony of the AIIB. As the media circulated the pictures of the encounter, some observers had speculated that Beijing might not be averse to the idea of Tsang succeeding Leung as Hong Kong’s top leader.

Such talk has added to the nervousness of Leung, prompting him to step up efforts to keep his top officials away from the spotlight. 

The question now is, how far is he prepared to go to succeed in those efforts?

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EJ Insight writer