19 April 2019
Carrie Lam reportedly has the backing of the central government but that does not mean Beijing won’t change its mind at the last minute as happened in the previous election. Photo: HKEJ
Carrie Lam reportedly has the backing of the central government but that does not mean Beijing won’t change its mind at the last minute as happened in the previous election. Photo: HKEJ

Low popularity could derail Carrie Lam’s CE bid

According to media reports, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, and several other key Beijing officials recently visited Shenzhen and met with business leaders and heavyweights from the pro-establishment camp.

During the meeting, Zhang reportedly said the politburo had made a unanimous decision to support former chief secretary Carrie Lam for chief executive.

However, Zhang added that the endorsement of Lam only represented the central government’s general position on the chief executive election, and didn’t mean she was handpicked for the job. At the end of the day, it is up to the Election Committee to decide who will become the next CE.

Nor did he urge members of the Election Committee present at the meeting not to vote for any other candidates such as former financial secretary John Tsang.

Despite the fact that Beijing officials are throwing their weight behind Lam, apparently they still want to make sure the upcoming CE election is a competitive one, and Lam will have to pay her dues if she is really determined to get the job.

Interestingly, Beijing’s mouthpieces in Hong Kong gave a low-profile coverage of that meeting a few days afterwards, in an apparent attempt to downplay its significance and avoid creating an impression that the CE election is rigged.

The reports about Zhang’s remarks are highly reliable. Beijing has every reason to want to make sure things won’t spin out of control or get ugly in the upcoming CE election given the tense and highly polarized political atmosphere.

From Beijing’s point of view, the most urgent task right now is mending fences in Hong Kong.

And it is probably for this reason that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was not allowed to seek a second term due to his failure to repair relations in society over the past five years.

Carrie Lam has certain advantages over other CE hopefuls, which can explain why she is favored by Beijing.

For example, Lam pledged unwavering allegiance to the “831 Resolution” throughout the Occupy Central movement. In pushing ahead with a Forbidden City museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District, she has also shown her competence as a leader whom Beijing can trust.

In comparison, Regina Ip might be a steadfast Beijing loyalist but she lacks administrative experience while John Tsang hasn’t stood any major political test throughout his term in office as financial secretary.

However, Zhang’s meeting with the pro-establishment camp raises two fundamental questions: First, why were Beijing officials so anxious to “remind” Election Committee members that Lam is their favorite when the official nomination period hasn’t even begun yet? And second, will these officials change their mind and switch their support to other candidates like they did in the last CE election?

As far as the first question is concerned, I believe the reason Beijing officials have taken such great pains to remind Election Committee members that Lam is the real deal is that they want to make sure she will get as many nominations, let’s say 700, as possible, thereby giving her a head start in the election.

With regard to the second question, I believe even though Lam has got Beijing’s seal of approval for now, it is premature to say that her election as CE is a foregone conclusion.

Although popularity is not Beijing’s top concern, Beijing wouldn’t want someone considered unacceptable by Hongkongers to get the top job.

Based on the experience from past CE elections, it was always the candidate with the highest approval rating that won.

According to the latest poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post, even though Lam has Beijing’s full support, her popularity rating is still 14 points behind that of John Tsang and that gap is widening.

Don’t forget that Tsang managed to raise HK$5 million in two weeks from crowdfunding and that he is highly popular with young people in particular.

With election day more than a month away, if Carrie Lam is unable to turn the tables on John Tsang and beat him in terms of popularity, chances are Beijing might ditch her and switch its support to Tsang, just like it cast aside Henry Tang in favor of CY Leung in 2012.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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