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Politics

China-US relations the hidden key to Hong Kong's leadership race

Will Xi take a hard or soft line on Trump?

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, John Tsang Chun-wah and Woo Kwok-hing.

HONG KONG -- A Beijing favorite and two democratic rivals will vie for the top political job here in a March 26 vote whose outcome could signal whether Chinese President Xi Jinping is looking to take an unyielding or friendly approach to Washington.

Hong Kong's chief executive is chosen by a roughly 1,200-member election committee representing various industries. A candidate must secure at least 150 nominations before he or she can officially run. As of Wednesday's deadline, former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had been nominated by 580 members, or about 70% of the committee's pro-Beijing bloc -- just 21 short of the 601 votes needed to win. Former Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing barely qualified after splitting the democratic camp.

Current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was initially considered a lock for re-election but unexpectedly announced in December that he would not run again. Many see Beijing as behind this move.

Leung's decision was not unrelated to how the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president has shifted Hong Kong's strategic importance, said Simon Shen Xu Hui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Trump had spoken with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen by phone during his transition and had cast doubt for a time on whether he would honor the "One China" policy considering the mainland and Taiwan as parts of the same country. Trump's tough stance on China seemed to rub off on American attitudes toward Hong Kong as well. Sen. Marco Rubio, who lost the Republican presidential nomination to Trump, introduced legislation in November to punish government officials who interfere with Hong Kong's autonomy and suppress basic freedoms here.

Leung stuck to a hard-fisted approach throughout his tenure. He refused to compromise when activists demanding democratic elections blocked thoroughfares in the autumn of 2014 in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. Calls for Hong Kong independence are growing among frustrated youths, and the rift between Beijing supporters and democracy advocates has only widened.

Had Leung served another term, foreign actors might have been emboldened to ramp up support for Hong Kong's democratic camp. The mainland government instead turned to No. 2 official Lam. She has a long career in government dealing with social welfare and development and is less disliked by the public than the deeply unpopular chief executive.

Leung won the 2012 race with just 689 votes, and his lack of a solid support base has long been ridiculed by the democratic camp. The mainland's liaison office in Hong Kong is tightening controls over the pro-Beijing faction to shore up votes for Lam and ensure that she has a better claim to power.

But some argue that Tsang would be a better safeguard against Trump. The former financial secretary moved to the U.S. as a teenager and earned a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Tsang oversaw economic policy in Hong Kong, a global financial hub, for nine and a half years and has many friends in American and European financial circles.

Considering that the Trump administration is filled with Goldman Sachs alumni, like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, some on the mainland think that Tsang should be put at the helm of the Hong Kong government so that he can serve as a bridge to China, a diplomatic source said.

The voting for chief executive will be by secret ballot, and committee members might not necessarily vote for their own nominees. "Depending on what Xi decides, we still have a chance," a Tsang supporter said. The Hong Kong election could offer a hint as to whether the Chinese leader will push back hard against interference by the Trump administration or try a more cooperative tack.

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