Today’s mouth-froth is about seating arrangements. In the past, Hong Kong Chief Executives doing the annual kowtow in Beijing would have their photo taken as an apparent equal alongside the Chinese leader in that familiar scene of big armchairs, loud carpet, copious flowers and that nasty giant tapestry of the Great Wall. Not now. The brutes received CY Leung in a stale conference room of lumpy rosewood furnishings and Deng Xiaoping’s old spittoon in the corner, plus a Big Red Flag in case you don’t get the message. And they made him sit humbly to one side of the table, like some deputy assistant branch manager who has failed to meet his sales target.
Everyone concludes that the arrangement is a calculated reproach to Hong Kong for its insolence and disloyalty. It reflects the constitutional position of the city, CY himself states – no doubt approvingly, as being belittled by the Communist Party is a huge turn-on for him. And of course the imperious Xi Jinping is a total sucker for the master-slave Confucian hierarchy thing.
Hong Kong’s big political event in 2016 will, in theory, be the Legislative Council elections in September. But it will also probably be the year we find out whether Beijing is going to reappoint CY for a second term starting mid-2017. Other hopefuls – so far ex-Security Secretary Regina Ip and ex-Financial Secretary Antony Leung – will be jockeying for attention and favour, in their own ways.
In 2011-12, Beijing’s local Liaison Office eliminated tycoons’ choice Henry Tang with maximum prejudice and installed CY as their obedient killer-poodle. China was undergoing a leadership transition, and the cadres may have had some leeway to act on their own initiative. This time, they will have a detailed script endorsed by their bosses back home. It can only reflect Xi’s centralizing and authoritarian instincts – which CY surely satisfies better than any conceivable alternative.
Antony Leung is being tentatively proposed by the old tycoon caste. Tentatively, because the Xi regime does not hold them in the high esteem they formerly enjoyed in Beijing, and they will have to live with CY if he gets reappointed. All Antony can do is wait for the Liaison Office to give him word that he can be a candidate – and even then it might just be as a sacrificial loser to make the process look vaguely like an election. His establishment buddies will be reluctant to openly oppose CY, and his smug and elitist image and unimpressive record in office 10 years ago will leave the Hong Kong public cold.
As for Regina, she is deluding herself if she imagines that anyone anywhere wants her as Chief Executive. Her efforts to look appointable are shameless and almost desperate. Taking yourself too seriously and Visibly Trying Too Hard are cardinal sins in any case. And if she does somehow make a populist or other bid to usurp CY, the goon squad that crushed Henry will be ready to liquidate her at a moment’s notice, with whatever dirt they have on their files.
You hear other names from time to time, like Tsang Yok-sing, the mild mannered and occasionally personable-looking figurehead of the local Communist Party front. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that it would take a serious upset – CY being run over by a bus, or a power struggle in Beijing – to shift the current course. Put it another way: can you picture anyone else sitting dutifully at the table like that?