HONG KONG -- As the race to become Hong Kong next chief is gathering momentum, it remains unclear who Beijing's preferred winner is.
At the moment, the leading contenders are former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has the support of many pro-Beijing electors. Close behind is John Tsang Chun-wah, a former financial secretary popular with pro-democracy activists.
But with less than two months to go before the election in late March, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not publicly thrown his support behind a candidate. This is making pro-government voters, eager to jump on the bandwagon, nervous.
On Feb. 3, Lam held a kick-off rally at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The venue hosted more than 800 political and business supporters. Lam talked about her experience as she walked back and forth across the stage, speaking into a clip-on microphone and making her pitch like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. "Hong Kong is divided and stuck in a stalemate," she said. "We must stay united and move forward."
As Hong Kong's No. 2 administrator, Lam backs the unpopular incumbent Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. In the fall of 2014, as the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement took to the streets, Lam rejected requests from student representatives out of hand, a move her critics called cold.
Lam invited her eldest son, who was against the idea of her running, to the rally. She hugged him in front of the crowd, in what looked like an attempt to soften her "iron lady" image.
Backrooms and ballots
Hong Kong elects the chief executive through a vote by the 1,200 members of the Election Committee, which is meant to represent different sectors of society. To become a candidate requires nominations from at least 150 members; a simple majority of 601 votes wins. Lam is widely thought to have the votes of least 400 pro-Beijing members.
Lam is the front-runner thanks to the support of the Chinese government's Hong Kong Liaison Office, which has made sure that its preferred candidate has won every election for chief executive so far. According to a Hong Kong newspaper, Zhang Dejiang, the third-ranking member of the Communist Party, called the head of Hong Kong's pro-mainland group to Shenzhen, just across the border, earlier this month. Zhang told them that Lam is the only acceptable candidate, and that this is the unanimous position of the Politburo, the party's top decision-making body.
Still, many power brokers in the pro-Beijing camp, including billionaire Li Ka-shing of the Cheung Kong group, have yet to say whom they support. Rumors are swirling that the words of Zhang Dejiang and the Liaison Office may not reflect the views of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The emperor's blessing
The Liaison Office had, until last year, expressed confidence that Leung would be re-elected as chief executive. But in December, Leung said he would not run again. That decision likely reflected the thinking of the Communist Party's top officials that his chances of winning were slim. The incident embarrassed mainland authorities and the Liaison Office's director, Zhang Xiaoming, temporarily disappeared from the public eye.
"The next chief executive election is closely linked to the power struggle in the central government, and since Zhang Dejiang is close to former President Jiang Zemin, there is no guarantee that he and Xi share the same view," said a pro-mainland official.
Lam's rival Tsang served as financial secretary for nine and half years, running Hong Kong's fiscal and monetary policies. His alumnus at the Harvard Kennedy School, Liu He, is Xi's economic adviser, serving as director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs.
At the founding conference of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in June 2015, Xi walked up to Tsang to shake hands, with Liu acting as go-between. This handshake, Tsang later said, prompted him to run.
Tsang has far less support from pro-mainlanders because of opposition from the Liaison Office. But Lam's pledged supporters may not actually vote for her: The ballot is secret. James Tien Pei-chun, an honorary chairman of the pro-mainland Liberal Party, which supports Tsang, is hopeful. "No one really knows who Xi's choice will be. He is the only one who can make the decision. We must wait until early March, when the National People's Congress starts in Beijing," he said.
Moves by pro-democracy activists are also hard to ignore. In December's election to select members of the Election Committee, they won a record 325 seats and now control more than a quarter of the committee's votes.
Committee member Benny Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and the advocate of the Umbrella Movement, plans to hold a mock election by citizens. Over 1 million people will be invited to vote for their favorite candidate using smartphones and other means until just before the official election on March 26. Pro-democracy members of the committee will probably take the results of this unofficial vote into consideration when making their own choices.
"The mportant thing is how we can engage the more Hong Kong people to join the democratic movement," Tai said, adding, "We will not be able to decide who can be the chief executive, though we can have some say on who we don't want to be the chief executive
Even though we don't get to decide who should be the [next] chief executive, we can express our opinions as to whom we don't want to become chief executive."
The winner will take office July 1, the same day Hong Kong marks the 20th anniversary of its return to China from the U.K. It is not clear yet whether Lam or Tsang will receive Xi's blessing at the anniversary ceremony. Until the vote, gauging both public opinion and the central government's wishes will be a favorite parlor game.