Our Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying looked happy enough after shaking hands with his boss, Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the APEC summit in Manila on Wednesday.
It many seem like a perfunctory gesture to some, but for CY Leung it could mean a lot.
You will recall that Xi warmly shook the hands of Financial Secretary John Tsang during a reception in Beijing in June, prompting speculation that he was being eyed as the city’s next leader.
So the handshake photo-op in Manila would look like China’s top leadership will have no objections if he seeks a second term.
Besides, Leung himself said the Chinese leader “fully affirmed” his decision to shift the focus of his administration to livelihood issues following the defeat of the Beijing-dictated political reform at the Legislative Council in June.
It may be early days for Beijing to decide on who will be the next Hong Kong leader.
After all, Xi still has a year and a half to monitor the performance of potential candidates.
In their one-on-one, Xi gave Leung a new set of directives, which can be interpreted as another crucial test of his mettle as a leader and, therefore, of whether he is worthy to extend his stay in office.
His boss told him to pursue efforts in building a harmonious society and seize the opportunities from China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, the Communist Party’s development blueprint for 2016-2020, as well as its One Belt, One Road initiative.
Leung has been outstanding in playing political games since he took the helm in 2012, but lacking in substantial achievements.
His low popularity among Hong Kong people is mainly due to the public perception that he is putting the interests of his Beijing masters ahead of the welfare of his local constituents.
In fact, in keeping with Xi’s instruction to build harmony in society, Leung has adopted a new approach, which is to reduce his public exposure to avoid creating controversies that may prompt criticism from the opposition.
Political observers note that the chief executive has reduced the number of his public engagements in the past few months, and has begged off from attending congregations in all the 10 government-subsidized universities, the hotbed of dissent in the territory.
A local newspaper on Wednesday reported that Leung will not attend congregation ceremonies this year in any of the 10 institutions, where he serves as chancellor. His No. 2, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, also won’t attend the ceremonies.
The experience of gracing such functions has been less than uplifting for Leung, who had been hounded by protesters whenever he showed his face on campus.
In one such event at the Academy of Performing Arts in 2013, the students gave him the cross arms and thumbs down to express their dissatisfaction over his leadership.
In October, after the governing council of the University of Hong Kong rejected the nomination of former law dean Johannes Chan as pro vice chancellor, Leung stressed that the chief executive has a responsibility and duty to perform as university chancellor, and that it is not just an honorary position.
In that context, his decision not to attend congregation ceremonies contradicts his earlier statement that he should exercise his duty as university chancellor.
Such events provide an opportunity for him to better understand the developments in those institutions and the young people who study there.
The recent debate on whether the chief executive should be the chancellor of the government-funded universities involves the issue of academic freedom.
Leung has the power to appoint a certain number of members of the governing council in these universities.
He has emphasized that the appointments are based on the candidates’ credentials and achievements, but there is no doubt in the minds of students that he is using that power to influence the internal affairs of universities.
Thus, his decision to lessen the number of his personal engagements in universities could defuse criticism that he is trying to meddle in the affairs of these academic institutions.
But whether that would translate into an improvement of his popularity ratings is another matter.
Apart from his self-imposed absence in congregation ceremonies this year, Leung has also canceled townhall meetings with local communities for his policy address next year.
Such meetings, which was initiated by former governor Chris Patten, offers a platform for the government to listen to the public views and sentiments regarding local issues without having to go through intermediaries such as political parties.
But Leung has decided to forgo such engagements, raising speculation that he is merely trying to avoid any confrontation with protesters.
While many Hong Kong people may be glad to be spared of his presence, his decision to keep himself away from the public eye may prompt others to accuse him of not performing well as the city’s leader.
But given his low popularity rating, his reduced exposure could benefit social harmony.
Leung has made remarks and pursued policies that triggered controversies and conflicts in society. His suggestion to build homes in country parks, the HKU appointment saga, and the establishment of the Innovation and Technology Bureau are just a few of those instances.
So his decision to reduce his public exposure may be an attempt to improve his popularity ratings and enhance social harmony.
That could be good news for Hong Kong people in the short term, but it would also give Leung more time to map out his campaign for the 2017 election.
Would that also be good news for Hong Kong?
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