Why Beijing is playing down Zhang Dejiang's Shenzhen visit

February 09, 2017 14:47
State leader Zhang Dejiang (inset) is said to have told select members of the Election Committee to support chief executive contender Carrie Lam. Photos: HKEJ, Reuters

While most of Hong Kong’s mainstream media reported Zhang Dejiang's recent visit to Shenzhen to meet the city's elites regarding the chief executive election, Beijing mouthpieces didn't give much prominence to the news.

On Wednesday, a local deputy to the National People's Congress, Priscilla Lau, said Beijing doesn't want the chief executive election to be a one-horse race, public broadcaster RTHK reported.

Lau also denied speculation that Zhang, the NPC Standing Committee chairman, had told members of the Election Committee during the meeting to support the bid of former chief secretary Carrie Lam to succeed Leung Chun-ying as chief executive.

Talks that Zhang held with Hong Kong personalities should not be seen as moves by the central government to interfere in the city's affairs, she added.

Lau clearly wants to squelch speculation that the meeting was intended to drum up support for Lam as the next chief executive. 

At the same time, however, her remarks also made her the first Beijing loyalist to confirm Zhang's visit to Shenzhen to meet with people from Hong Kong about the election.

Now if Beijing really wants to lend credibility to next month's political exercise, it should see to it that its loyalists on the Election Committee give both Lam and her chief rival John Tsang a fighting chance and allow for a two-horse race.

But it seems there are so many people who want to speak on behalf of the top leaders in Zhongnanhai.

China watchers are beginning to doubt whether the Liaison Office as well as the central government department in charge of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, which is led by Zhang, have any right to speak on behalf of Beijing regarding the upcoming election, or if their statements truly reflect the thinking of their top boss, President Xi Jinping.

There is, in fact, speculation that Zhang’s strong support for Lam is aimed at protecting himself amid the ongoing political maneuverings in Beijing.

If that is the case, then it's understandable why the Beijing mouthpieces in Hong Kong have devoted scant coverage to Zhang's visit.

Editors of these establishment papers are acutely aware of the sensitivity of the subject and wouldn't want to breach the red line as far as the Communist Party is concerned.

In fact, the Shenzhen visit may have been Zhang's own initiative, and therefore without any endorsement from the party's other top cadres.

Some newspapers, which are controlled by pro-Beijing tycoons, gave full play to Tsang's election platform, while playing down CY Leung's criticism of Tsang's proposals on housing.

At the same time, they carried articles on the Liaison Office's firm support for Lam.

However, the more balanced media coverage doesn't mean the Liaison Office is relaxing its efforts to interfere in the election.

On Wednesday afternoon, billionaire Li Ka-shing, together with his two sons, was seen visiting the headquarters of the Liaison Office in Hong Kong.  

Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the office, was seen accompanying Li after their meeting.

The news was reported by online media outfits HKGpao and Passion Times. The former is run by a known supporter of CY Leung, while the latter was founded by former radical lawmaker Wong Yuk-man.

Of course it wasn't known what Zhang and Li talked about, but the meeting raised speculation that Zhang could have urged Li to support a specific candidate in the race.

Some media reports said Li was a backer of Tsang, but the tycoon never confirmed such talk. He told the press that he hoped Hong Kong would have a new leader accepted by Hong Kong people.

What is clear is that the Liaison Office has continued to work proactively to secure support for Lam.

The Chinese General Chamber of Commerce also said that it has sent back all its 18 nomination forms to Lam, while Tsang said he has received only five nominations so far.

With the democrats still debating whether to support Tsang, considered as "a lesser evil" than Lam, or put up their own candidate, some political observers are beginning to doubt whether the former financial secretary could get enough nominations before the deadline next month.

Meanwhile, the outgoing administration led by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying stepped up its attacks on Tsang's political platform.

It's obvious that CY Leung could not maintain his neutrality in the election, nor does he care about fairness.

All this makes it difficult for many Hong Kong people to understand why the Liaison Office insists on interfering in the elections when its man, CY Leung, is already out of the game.

From the point of view of the general public, both Lam and Tsang enjoy the trust of the central authorities as they both held important positions in the Hong Kong government over the past decade.

It could be said that Tsang even played a more important role by looking after the city’s financial affairs and playing a key role in helping Beijing in the internationalization of the renminbi.

Hong Kong people only want Beijing, along with the Liaison Office, to give the Election Committee a free hand to choose the city's next leader based on their own judgment.

After all, that's what “one country, two systems” is about.

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EJ Insight writer