March 9, 2017 7:20 am JST

Beijing rallies support for favored Hong Kong chief candidate

China aims to quell unrest with decisive victory for Lam

YASUO AWAI, Nikkei staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with Zhang Dejiang, the country's No. 3 leader.

BEIJING -- China's government is leaning harder on pro-Beijing electors in Hong Kong's chief executive race to back its preferred candidate, intensifying critics' claims of illegal interference in the special administrative region's affairs.

The central government holds candidates for the chief executive position to an even "higher standard" than that for other top officials, Zhang Dejiang, the third-ranking official in China's Communist Party, told Hong Kong's delegation to the National People's Congress on Monday. This was a clear if implicit rebuttal to claims by John Tsang Chun-wah, the popular former Hong Kong financial secretary running for the office, that he has gained Beijing's trust in his long career as a civil servant.

Hong Kong's chief executive is chosen by a roughly 1,200-member committee of electors representing various industries, which will vote on March 26. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Hong Kong's former second-in-command and Beijing's favored candidate, was nominated to run by 580 of those electors in the panel's pro-China wing, leaving her just 21 votes short of victory.

Yet Tsang's 60% public approval rating dwarfs his Beijing-backed rival's 44%, according to a poll by the local Ming Pao newspaper in late February. There is also believed to be hidden support for Tsang among pro-China electors, who are not bound to vote for the candidate they nominate.

By whipping the pro-China faction into line, Beijing aims to hand Lam a decisive victory, bolstering her legitimacy to bring stability to Hong Kong at a time of social turbulence. Premier Li Keqiang delivered an unusually explicit dismissal of the region's independence movement during the NPC's opening session Sunday, saying that the notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere.

President Xi Jinping is expected to attend a ceremony on July 1 marking 20 years since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control. The region's government will need to find a good deal of unity and support if it is to prevent another outpouring of anti-mainland sentiment akin to the "Umbrella Movement" protests of autumn 2014.

Despite Zhang's claims that Beijing has the right to make its voice heard on the election, such blatant interventionism is widely expected to embolden pro-democracy forces. Hong Kong's Basic Law bans China from interfering in its internal affairs, and Woo Kwok-hing, a retired judge also in the running for chief executive, has suggested that "illegal acts deserve punishment."

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