22 October 2016
Zhang Dejiang assured CY Leung of continued support from Beijing, but gave no hint as to whether the Hong Kong leader will be granted a second term in office. Photo: Reuters
Zhang Dejiang assured CY Leung of continued support from Beijing, but gave no hint as to whether the Hong Kong leader will be granted a second term in office. Photo: Reuters

Did the Leung camp use Zhang trip to undermine John Tsang?

NPC Standing Committee chairman Zhang Dejiang, who is set to wrap up a 3-day trip to Hong Kong, hasn’t given any hint as to Beijing’s preferred candidate for Hong Kong’s leadership race next year.

Soon after landing in the city on Tuesday, Zhang held a closed-door meeting with top Hong Kong officials to get work reports and review the sociopolitical situation in the territory. 

The move was seen as an exercise aimed at assessing the performance of key figures in the local administration, including Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Financial Secretary John Tsang.

Now, we do not know what exactly transpired during the meeting and how the mainland’s third-highest ranking leader reacted to the briefings.

Did Zhang pass comments on any specific official? This is what observers would like to know, as they search for clues on Beijing’s thinking on the prospects for the 2017 chief executive race.  

There is particular interest as to how the central leadership measures Leung in comparison to his finance chief Tsang, given that the latter is seen as a potential contender for Hong Kong’s top job. 

Well, we can’t say anything for sure, but there is at least one thing that seems to be happening — someone from the Leung camp wants us to believe that Zhang made critical comments on Tsang.  

On Wednesday, an online media outlet published a report which suggested that Tsang failed to get a positive rating from Zhang. 

HK01, a pro-establishment outlet founded by businessman Yu Pun-hoi, put up a story on its website with the headline: “Source: Zhang Dejiang was not satisfied with John Tsang’s report”.

The story claimed that at the meeting with Hong Kong officials Tuesday afternoon, the NPC chief passed very few remarks on Leung, but instead spent most of the time commenting on Tsang’s performance.

“Someone said Zhang was not satisfied with Tsang’s performance,” the report said, claiming an exclusive on the goings-on at the meeting.

Zhang felt that Tsang’s work report lacked in substance and that the finance chief merely resorted to an “official tone”, the source was quoted as saying.

As Zhang has a clear understanding of economic issues, he spent much of time commenting on Tsang’s performance, the report said.

Apart from Leung and Tsang, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen are also said to have given briefings to Zhang during the Tuesday meeting.

The report concluded with this comment from the unnamed source: “It isn’t good news for Tsang, as he was criticized by Zhang for a long time during the meeting.”

The criticism “will undoubtedly cast a shadow” on Tsang’s prospects to join the race for Hong Kong’s top job next year, the source was quoted as saying.

The report needs to be taken with a handful of salt as it was based solely on an “unnamed source”, without any comments or response from the people involved, including Leung and Tsang.

But what it points to is this: someone is badmouthing Tsang and trying to undermine his standing in the eyes of the public.

It is possible that either Leung or someone close to him is floating negative stories on Tsang to fend off a potential rival in the 2017 chief executive election.

As Tsang is right now the most popular senior government official in Hong Kong, the Leung camp may be seeking to undercut the finance chief’s chances by leaking purported negative comments from Zhang.

There is no doubt that Leung sees Tsang as a big threat ahead of the 2017 election. 

While it is impossible to get any confirmation on Zhang’s reported comments, it is clear that the leak — genuine or otherwise — could have come from only some person high up in the establishment.

Did the Leung camp use the Zhang visit for some ulterior end? This is a question that arises in the wake of the negative media report on Tsang.

Leung had in the past made use of meetings with Chinese leaders to promote himself.

In November 2014, after Leung met President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of an APEC meeting, some media outlets were fed reports that Xi had praised Leung for his tough stance amid a challenging environment. 

Hong Kong was at that time rocked by the Occupy pro-democracy protests.  

Leung may be happy with the timing of Zhang’s visit now, given that the mainland official has said that Beijing will support Hong Kong’s current administration in implementing key policies.

Despite Leung’s low popularity, Zhang complimented the chief executive for his efforts to boost the Hong Kong economy.

“The SAR government, under the leadership of the Chief Executive CY Leung, has identified the problems, and has been working hard on enhancing economic and social development,” he said.

“The policy measures they rolled out are gradually taking effect.”

Zhang’s comments may not mean that Beijing will allow Leung another 5 years in office, but they will nevertheless serve as a shot in the arm for the Leung camp.

“It’s central government responsibility to show its full support to the whole SAR administration including the chief executive,” said Lau Siu-Kai, a veteran Beijing loyalist.

“Zhang is just doing his duty and his message may be aimed at easing the pressure amid the difficulties faced by the SAR government.”

It may be too early to conclude as to what report Zhang will give his boss Xi Jinping after returning to Beijing.

The 3-day trip may have helped the mainland official gain more insights on the situation in Hong Kong, but the jury will still be out in Beijing with regard to the performance of the Leung regime.

While Leung may be pleased overall with the outcome of the Zhang trip, it will be too soon for him to celebrate.

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EJ Insight writer

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