With no clear signals from Beijing on who to support in the coming chief executive election, fissures are starting to show in the pro-establishment camp.
Things started to pick up after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying announced last Friday he will not seek a second term because of family reasons, and John Tsang on Monday tendered his resignation as financial secretary, paving the way for his bid for the city’s top job.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and legislator Regina Ip are also widely expected to join the race soon.
Beijing, of course, would want its loyal forces in Hong Kong to rally behind a single candidate in the face of the opposition’s strong showing in recent political exercises, particularly the election for seats in the Legislative Council and the 1,200-member Election Committee.
But by the way the pro-establishment newspapers are covering the latest political developments, one could see Beijing’s local allies are far from united in their preference for the next chief executive.
Oriental Daily News, a widely read paid Chinese-language newspaper that has consistently supported CY Leung, showed a clear bias against Tsang in its coverage of his resignation.
Just look at its headlines: “Tsang resigns without blessing from central government”, “Establishment camp could consolidate its power to fight against Tsang”, etc.
On its inside pages, the newspaper presented an unflattering assessment of Tsang’s performance as financial chief for nine years, accusing him of refusing to boost government spending and lambasting him for his erroneous fiscal projections.
It’s quite obvious that Oriental Daily is not a Tsang-friendly media outlet at this stage.
Meanwhile, two Beijing mouthpieces in Hong Kong – Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao – chose to devote only short pieces to Tsang’s resignation and focus instead on the results of the election committee subsector election.
It’s interesting to find out if the two newspapers will continue to show the same disinterested attitude when Regina Ip declares her intention to run for chief executive later this week.
Their coverage could be a hint on how Beijing looks at Tsang and Ip as candidates.
Sing Tao Daily, which has been labeled a government mouthpiece since Leung took office as chief executive four years ago, appears to have softened its stance on Tsang as far as its coverage is concerned.
Its front page splashed Tsang’s resignation, giving a bit of emphasis on his expression of gratitude to former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa for appointing him as a senior government official.
It also devoted a full inside page to a positive profile of Tsang, describing how he was able to win the business sector’s support through his conservative fiscal policy.
In an editorial piece, Sing Tao stressed the importance of strong public support in the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader.
It could be said that Sing Tao, a pro-Leung newspaper, appears to be making an effort to be more neutral in the post-Leung era.
Sing Pao Daily News, a pro-Beijing but anti-Leung newspaper, also portrayed Tsang in a positive light.
Devoting a full page on the former financial secretary, it talked about Tsang’s efforts to unite society by promoting the Hong Kong spirit, and pointed out that his family has so far managed to avoid negative news coverage.
On Tuesday former chief executive Tung Chee-wah was seen hugging Carrie Lam ahead of a ceremony marking the 79th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre.
The hug, as to be expected, fueled speculation that Lam would also quit soon to join the race, and that Beijing might be siding with her.
So far, however, the central government has not given any clear indication of its preference.
What’s noticeable is that the head of Beijing’s liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming, has not shown up in public events since Leung announced his retirement plans last Friday.
There has been some speculation that Zhang and Leung are working closely together to implement a radical pro-Beijing approach in governing Hong Kong, further tightening the reins and making it harder for the opposition, particularly the localists, to take advantage of the democratic space.
But there is another school of thought that says Beijing has to change its governing style and adopt a more flexible regime to win back the trust of Hong Kong people.
That means that a candidate with a tougher pro-Beijing stance may find it hard to win the race. That means Tsang, with his solid financial background, may have some advantage.
But other names, such as Norman Chan of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and Margaret Chan of the World Health Organization, are also being bruited about. The city’s next leader could be a dark horse.
With Leung’s rating falling to the lowest for a Hong Kong leader since the 1997 handover, Beijing should consider a chief executive who enjoys strong public support.
The city cannot waste another five years on political struggles and bickerings.
Leung’s unpopularity and the disharmony he has inflicted on society should serve as a warning to Beijing when choosing Hong Kong’s next leader.
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