It may not be as fierce and fiery as the first round of the US presidential debates, but the press conference last week with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was equally gripping.
Unlike the face-off between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, the two protagonists in the Hong Kong event are not candidates – yet.
But you could feel that something was simmering just below the surface, the tension was hidden but it was so thick and palpable you could slice it with a knife.
In the first place, the press conference was apparently called for the administration to come clean on the Wang Chau public housing development issue, to project that Team CY is intact.
So sparks didn’t fly as Leung and Tsang explained their respective side on the controversy.
Tsang reiterated that he didn’t decide on developing Wang Chau in stages, and his boss admitted that it was his decision.
That sounded benign compared to their conflicting statements a couple of days ago when CY Leung appeared to be passing the blame to his subordinate Tsang, and Tsang denying any involvement in the alleged downsizing of the project.
That said, everything seemed back to normal, until a reporter asked Tsang what he thought of his boss, to which he responded with the now-famous words: “You always agree with your boss. No question about that.”
Political pundits have given so many interpretations to that statement, but it is quite clear that Tsang was speaking in the third person.
By using the words “you” and “your boss”, he apparently wanted to say that he was not talking in particular about his personal circumstances but speaking in general terms.
It’s an assertion of a general rule, a universal truth in any given working environment.
But almost everyone understands the hidden meaning of his statement.
That he is still an official of the CY Leung administration, and therefore he could not oppose his boss and his decisions.
At the same time, his statement gives a hint that he may quit anytime soon.
Henry Tang Ying-yen quit as chief secretary in September 2011, six months before the chief executive election. He lost to Leung in that contest.
But thanks to Liberal Party honorary chairman James Tien, we get to know more about what really happened.
An open critic of Leung, Tien said he had heard from his sources that last week’s press conference was orchestrated or, more precisely, ordered by Beijing to minimize the damage from what appeared to be bickerings among senior government officials of the special administrative region.
“They didn’t want a press conference,” Tien said. “It was forced to them by Beijing. Beijing also forced Tsang to show up and said, ‘You two make a drama and sort it out.’”
Tien said Beijing was very concerned about internal conflicts in the SAR government being made public: “How can you have two senior leaders saying things that contradict the other?”
So now we know that the “boss” Tsang was referring to might not be – or not be just – Leung, but also Beijing.
So the duo will continue to act like true gentlemen, smiling at each other like old buddies – and hiding their claws – as long as Beijing keeps them guessing who is the anointed one.
A possible indication on who will be the next (or still be) chief executive of Hong Kong could be seen during the sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, which will be held on Oct. 24 to 27.
Meanwhile, no one is counting out anyone yet.
All three senior government executives – Leung, Tsang and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam – were invited to the 10th anniversary celebration of the Bauhinia Research Foundation Centre last week.
The non-profit organization is widely considered a kingmaker, one whose recommendation for the top leadership of Hong Kong is given importance in Beijing.
But unlike the diplomatic stance of Bauhinia, Hong Kong Vision, chaired by former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang, is out and out for John Tsang as the next chief executive.
Jasper Tsang himself, who had earlier revealed plans to run for chief executive, said last week he would not consider taking up the top post.
And so with everything still in a state of flux, grab your chair and watch the show. After Trump vs Hillary, we shall have Tsang vs Leung.
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