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And they’re off!  But not officially! The horse race for the 2017 CE election already begun.


His trademarked self-belief in full swing, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying dismissed speculation about the political connotation of the so-called “Xi hand-shake”, referring to the encounter between Xi Jinping and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah in Beijing last week. No. No. No. He said the hand-shake has nothing to do with CE election.

Leung was making a belated move to dampen the enthusiasm of punters talking up the chance of Tsang in the 2017 race before he convened his weekly Executive Council meeting on July 7.

“President Xi has always attached importance to and supported Hong Kong. He and our government representative shook hands out of courtesy. I think it’s very normal,” he said. “We have seen this in many similar occasions before. We should not link his show of friendship with CE election”.


Grasping at…hands

The “Xi hand-shake” incident has caused disquiet in the otherwise unexciting post-political reform political scene after footage of their encounter at a meeting in Beijing was released by China’s official television station. Xi was playing host to government representatives attending a ceremony of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“Tung Chee-hwa … rose to political prominence after that  fateful handshake – and finished first in the first CE race.

It was compared with the famous hand-shake between former state president Jiang Zemin and the city’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in Beijing in 1996. Tung, though a member of the last governor Chris Patten’s Executive Council then, was by no means a household name. He rose to political prominence after that  fateful handshake – and finished first in the first CE race.

The “Xi hand-shake”, however, is a case of “one hand-shake, two different schools of interpretation”. Whereas Leung dismissed its importance, some see more meaning in the handclasp.


Tsang 2.0?

Although it is anybody’s guess about whether Xi’s move has carried political meaning, it has put public attention on the possible candidacy of Tsang in the 2017 chief executive race.

When asked by reporters, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen (he was defeated by Leung in the 2012 CE election) and Liberal Party’s honorary president James Tien Pei-chun commented positively on Tsang’s credentials. Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the only Hong Kong delegate at the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said it would be a good thing if Tsang decided to run.

Understandably, Tsang sidestepped reporters’ questions about his intention of contesting the race. He has consistently given no sign of any interest in doing so, but did not rule out such a possibility. With two years left in his current term, Tsang knows well the last thing he wants at this stage is to be seen as having already set his eyes on the 2017 race.

In view of his highly-sensitive position in the Leung team, it would be politically smart for him to keep the expectation of his candidacy low while not ruling himself out.


Xi’s the boss

This is because, regardless of Tsang’s preference, Xi has the final say on who can run to be the next CE.

There is no doubt Leung remains the leading contender for the 2017 race. But it is clear Beijing does not want to give an impression that the 2017 job is already in the pocket of Leung. They want a manageable contest among candidates they deem acceptable. John Tsang seems to fit the description ‘acceptable’.


Who’s on first?

Aside from the episode, a string of developments has given further signs of an intensifying rivalry in the pro-establishment camp following the reform fiasco.

Soon after the electoral reform blueprint was vetoed, Leung removed his pet initiative, the creation of an innovation and technology bureau, from the top to the bottom of a long list of funding applications at the Legislative Council’s Finance Committee.

“John Tsang may not want the top job.

He was hoping members would green-light  other economic and livelihood items such as the civil servants’ pay rise before the current legislative year expires. His aides have described it as an “olive branch” for the opposition. Leung said he hoped to build a “new executive-legislature relationship” in the post-political reform period.

About the same time, he sent invitations to meet with pan-democratic political parties.


Bouquets for buddies

While seeking to shake hands with the pan-dems, Leung has hugged and showed generosity and gratitude to the pro-Beijing camp in the latest round of honours gazetted on July 1. Three of the four Grand Bauhinia Medal recipients are veteran pro-Beijing figures. They are Legco President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, Federation of Trade Unions president Cheng Yiu-tong and businessman Ho Sai-chu.

Two young pro-Beijing faces in the legislature, Mak Mei-kuen (NT West geographical constituency) and Steven Ho Chun-yin (Agricultural and Fisheries functional constituency) were given Bronze Bauhinia Medal. Kan Fook-yee, a veteran pro-Beijing figure whose profession is surveying, was on the list of Gold Bauhinia Medal. Kan was active in the political scene in the 1980s and 1990s and had closely worked with Leung, but has kept a low profile in the last decade.

No pan-democrats were on the last honours list. The game of giving SAR honours to allies is seen as election tactic aimed to win hearts and minds of the pro-Beijing allies, who are seen as Leung’s strongest source of support.

That is, of course, not enough for Leung to get five more years at the helm.


Business camp hot for change

If anything, the talk about “Xi hand-shake”  reflects the heating up of the CE race and, importantly, the fervent desire in some quarters of the pro-establishment camp, particular the business sector, for the rise of potential candidates such as John Tsang to thwart Leung’s re-election bid.

Former financial services and the treasury minister Frederick Ma Si-hang had earlier made a high-profile appeal for his former team-mate Antony Leung Kam-chung, who resigned from the post of financial secretary in July 2003, to contest the 2017 chief executive election.

“Xi has the final say on who can run to be the next CE.

Leung had reportedly said in private he would not consider running if the election rules, aka “small-circle election” through a 1,200-member committee, adopted in 2012, remains unchanged. The chance of Antony Leung running grew slim. Ma, who has also been tipped as a dark horse, was named by Leung Chun-ying to head the Mass Transit Railway Corporation. He will be busy averting a crisis over its multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail link troubled by cost-overrun and delay.

John Tsang may not want the top job. But it will not be easy for him to say no if Beijing and some powerful movers and shakers in the pro-establishment camp are adamant Leung will bring more harm than good to the city if he stays on the job after 2017.