Does popularity matter in Beijing's CE choice?

December 02, 2016 09:18
Recent polls have shown Financial Secretary John Tsang to be the most preferred among the potential CE candidates. However, much of his support comes from the opposition camp and localists, the sections that Beijing is wary of. Photo: HKEJ

Many people agree that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has a face that is hard to read. You can never tell what he is thinking or feeling. It's not exactly a poker face because a poker face is impassive, without any expression. But Leung's face is not always expressionless. He sometimes smiles when he meets the media. His face alternates between a smile and impassiveness, nothing else. There is never anger even when he strongly criticizes something or someone in front of the media. He just looks impassively stern, in contrast to US president-elect Donald Trump, who scowls when he is angry and glares at his opponents.

Unlike Leung, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah doesn't wear his face like a mask. It was easy to tell from his face during the September joint press conference with Leung on the Wang Chau housing controversy that he didn't want to be there. He wore a constant black look. Even when he said: "You always agree with your boss, no question about that", you could tell he was mocking Leung.

Leung's smile was particularly broad last week when he talked to the Hong Kong media in Peru right after his 45-minute meeting with President Xi Jinping. He even chuckled when a reporter asked him if he was disappointed that Xi did not raise the issue of him seeking a second term as chief executive. Since his face is impossible to read, it's hard to guess the reasons behind his confident smile. It could be that he interpreted Xi's body language as a sign that Beijing will back him for a second term. Or it could be that Xi's body language was so neutral that he had to mask his dismay with a smile.

Either way, Hong Kong reporters were totally naïve to expect any clear signal from Xi during the Peru meeting when Leung was accompanied by his assistants, including the director of the chief executive's office Edward Yau Tang-wah. How could anyone seriously think Xi would discuss the chief executive election or express support for Leung in a setting like that? Just because former president Jiang Zemin made a point of having a high-profile handshake with Tung Chee-hwa to signal Beijing's choice as Hong Kong's first post-colonial chief executive, it doesn't mean such handshakes carry similar weight nowadays. That was 20 years ago under very different circumstances and a different leader.

It should now be clear to all those not swayed by speculative headlines that Beijing has yet to decide who it prefers as the next chief executive. People also need to understand that opinion polls on who is the most popular among the likely candidates are pointless. It is pointless, for example, to compare Leung with retired judge Woo Kwok-hing or Tsang with Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. Such polls only make sense in a one person, one vote election but no sense in an election decided by an Election Committee of 1,200 people, which is heavily influenced by Beijing.

Recent polls have shown Tsang to be the most popular among Hong Kong people, with Leung and the others trailing far behind. But why do over 60 percent of those polled prefer Tsang to all the others? The answer is very simple. People believe he can heal the divisions in society that they believe Leung caused. They believe he can give them the so-called genuine democracy that Leung failed to give them. They believe he will fight for Hong Kong's interests whereas Leung sucked up to Beijing instead of standing up to it.

Tsang's 60 percent support comes mostly from the opposition camp and even from localists because he had said he supports localism in the context of local values. Support from this sector could, in a way, be a kiss of death because it is this very sector that Beijing is wary of. Even if Beijing, through the Election Committee, factors in popularity when deciding who to favor as the next leader, Tsang’s high ratings would quickly dissipate once it becomes apparent that he is no more able to deliver the things that Leung failed to deliver.

The opposition camp has made its bottom line very clear. It wants Beijing to withdraw the so-called White Paper policy document on Hong Kong and the August 31, 2014 political reform framework. It wants true democracy with no screening of chief executive candidates, and it wants self-determination in the context that Beijing controls only defense and foreign affairs.

This bottom line was barely possible when Leung became chief executive in 2012 and it is virtually impossible now with the rise of the independence movement. The opposition made it more impossible by siding with independence advocates Yau Wai-ching and Leung Chung-hang in their fight against being disqualified as legislators.

Let's suppose the election contest is between Leung and Tsang. It is certain Tsang will be bombarded with questions about whether he will ask Beijing to scrap the August 31 framework and allow genuine democracy, whether he will enact Article 23 national security legislation, and whether he supports self-determination. If he doesn't give the answers the opposition camp wants to hear, his popularity rating will plummet.

In reality, such a contest will not be about policies but personalities. It doesn't matter even if Leung is proven as a more capable leader. Leung is loathed but Tsang is liked. That's all that matters in public opinion polls. The opposition loathes Leung because he faces them down but likes Tsang because he is laid-back and easier to handle. But the question is will Beijing want a chief executive who the opposition embraces as one of its own?

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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.