27 October 2016
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has said numerous times she is not interested in becoming Hong Kong's next leader but most politicians don’t believe her because saying no doesn't really mean no in politics. Photo: HKEJ
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has said numerous times she is not interested in becoming Hong Kong's next leader but most politicians don’t believe her because saying no doesn't really mean no in politics. Photo: HKEJ

Who will be Hong Kong’s next chief executive?

Will Chief Secretary Carrie Lam become a candidate in next March’s chief executive election?

She has said numerous times she is not interested in becoming Hong Kong’s next leader but the media just doesn’t believe her.

Commentators and political analysts insist there is a strong possibility she will run against Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

I have asked many politicians from both the opposition and establishment camps why they don’t believe her when she says she won’t become a candidate.

All their answers were the same: saying no doesn’t really mean no in politics.

Some went as far as to say she really wants to become chief executive.

But influential people and business leaders I have talked to told me she had privately told them she will retire from government next year when her term as chief secretary ends.

Those who believe Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor will run point to the fact that Leung Chun-ying had also once said he would never run for chief executive yet joined the 2012 election against Henry Tang.

But there is a big difference between the two.

Leung Chun-ying had only said once in general that he would never run.

In his case, saying no doesn’t necessarily mean no because he had said it a long time before he actually ran.

In Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s case, she had said it numerous times in public and in private conversations with influential people.

She was still saying no as recently as a few months ago.

She only stopped saying it after the media refused to take her for her word and kept asking her.

If she has indeed changed her mind and is now thinking of running, she would have a hard time explaining it to those she had told in private that she would not run.

People would mock her as an untrustworthy person in the same way they now mock Leung Chun-ying for having said he would never run yet did run.

I have no inside information and I am not a betting man but I would bet that she won’t run.

Commentators and the media have named Financial Secretary John Tsang as another possible candidate.

He, too, has said he won’t become a candidate.

But the difference between him and Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is that he has not said as clearly as she that he won’t become a candidate.

He, too, has stopped giving a direct answer to the media when asked if he will run. But his behavior, body language, and words lately has fueled speculation that he is indeed interested in becoming chief executive.

His open support of localism in terms of local culture, movies and cuisine has boosted his popularity among many Hongkongers, especially the young, who fear mainlandization.

By making clear his definition of localism doesn’t include separatism and self-rule, it seems he wants to reassure the central government that his promotion of localism doesn’t mean he is siding with Hong Kong’s self-rule camp.

Many people I have spoken to believe Tsang Chun-wah is trying to show Beijing that his popularity, softer image and ability to have dialogue with the pan-democrats makes him a good alternative to the unpopular and hardline Leung Chun-ying should mainland leaders decide to have a new face as the next chief executive.

It is no secret that the Liberal Party’s James Tien loathes Leung Chun-ying and is actively supporting Tsang Chun-wah to replace him. But many people inside and outside government say the financial secretary lacks ambition, motivation and innovation.

Some even describe him as a laid-back person who is not hard-working enough to become chief executive.

But it is well-known that most property developers and business leaders much prefer Tsang Chun-wah to Leung Chun-ying.

They consider him as a business-friendly official who is on their side but see the chief executive as their enemy because of his populist policies such as poverty alleviation, property cooling measures, affordable housing and tighter control on mainland tourists coming to Hong Kong, which the business sector considers as damaging to its interests.

There is no doubt New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip yearns to be chief executive.

She is quite popular as a legislative councilor but this doesn’t necessarily mean her popularity will follow her if she decides to run for chief executive.

Being a legislative councilor and being the chief executive are two different things.

A legislator’s power is limited while that of the chief executive is extensive.

Will Hong Kong people, many of whom remember her fierce defence of the widely unpopular Article 23 national security legislation, trust her with extensive executive powers?

I don’t think she can beat either Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor or Tsang Chun-wah in a chief executive election if one or the other decides to run.

But can she beat Leung Chun-ying?

It has become quite clear he will seek a second term even though he has been evasive when asked by the media.

Who will the people prefer: Leung Chun-ying or Ip Lau Suk-yee?

Of course, it is not the people but the 1,200 members of the election committee who will decide.

But members have shown they will pay attention to public opinion, as they did in 2012 when Tang Ying-yen’s popularity plummeted after the media exposed his illegal basement.

Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing has said the central government wants a competitive election this time instead of anointing a candidate as in the past.

The opposition camp, which competed in previous chief executive elections, has indicated it won’t put up a candidate in the election.

But pan-democrats have said they will compete fiercely in the election for the 1,200 seats of the Election Committee so they can have a big say in who becomes the next leader.

The main reason the opposition camp wants a bigger say in the Election Committee is because of ABC, which means “Anyone but CY Leung”.

If the central government really wants a competitive election among the loyalist candidates it trusts, then Leung Chun-ying will no doubt face a tough fight against Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor or Tsang Chun-wah should either decide to run, especially if pan-democrats win a good number of seats in the Election Committee.

They will follow the ABC philosophy and do their best to oust Leung Chun-ying even though many of his livelihood policies are policies the opposition camp supports.

The irony is that even though Tsang Chun-wah is preferred by the property tycoons because they consider him to care more about their interests than the interests of the grassroots, the pan-democrats in the Election Committee will still vote for Tsang Chun-wah because of the ABC philosophy even though they claim they are on the side of ordinary Hong Kong people.

But as I said in my previous column, I doubt that Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor or Tsang Chun-wah will run if Leung Chun-ying runs.

It would be awkward for mainland leaders to see Hong Kong’s top officials competing against each other, especially because the media will be digging up dirt on the candidates as it did in the 2012 election.

For sure, the central government won’t allow all three to run at the same time because that would affect governance in Hong Kong.

But if the central government really wants a true competition as Tsang Yok-sing said, then the best way to prove that is to let either Tsang Chun-wah or Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor run against Leung Chun-ying, or to ask Leung Chun-ying to step down to pave the way for the chief secretary and financial secretary to run against each other.

It would also be a true competition among pro-establishment candidates if Leung Chun-ying and Ip Lau Suk-yee run against each other without the central government taking sides.

If this happens, will pan-democrats in the Election Committee choose Ip Lau Suk-yee because of the ABC philosophy?

And will the opposition camp in general actively support her even though she has far less leadership experience than Leung Chun-ying and has not shown the same level of passion he has in pushing for livelihood policies?

If the opposition camp makes ABC the top priority, then it has no choice but to support Ip Lau Suk-yee.

That’s why I said in my previous article that ABC is totally illogical.

It targets a person rather than the person’s policies, even though many in the ABC camp support the policies. Ricky Wong Wai-kee, who will run in September’s Legislative Council elections, clearly showed how illogical the ABC philosophy is. He said he is running only because he supports ABC.

Ricky Wong Wai-kee, who will run in September’s Legislative Council elections, clearly showed how illogical the ABC philosophy is. He said he is running only because he supports ABC.

He wants to see Leung Chun-ying ousted yet many of the policies in his manifesto are similar to Leung Chun-ying’s policies.

What sense does it make to compete in an election with the single slogan of ousting Leung Chun-ying when he supports many of Leung Chun-ying’s policies?

This article appeared in Chinese in the August 2016 issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly. (Android, iOS)

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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