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Signs hint Beijing may be shifting on HK leader

Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) – Just days before Hong Kong’s elite chooses the southern Chinese financial hub’s next leader, there are signs that Beijing wants to dump its first choice for the winner as it tries to keep pace with public opinion.

On Sunday, an 1,193-person committee will vote on the semiautonomous region’s next chief executive, while the rest of Hong Kong’s 7.1 million residents have no vote. The committee is made up of business leaders and other elites, most of whom are expected to vote according to Beijing’s wishes.

The man seen early on as Beijing’s preferred candidate, Henry Tang, is a former financial secretary who is deeply unpopular because of a series of gaffes.

There have been hints this week that China’s leaders are now switching their backing to his rival, Leung Chun-ying, a former Cabinet member.

A top Communist Party figure recently met with Tang supporters to persuade them to switch sides, and other pro-Beijing officials are reportedly working behind the scenes to do the same.

It’s a signal that Beijing thinks it’s important to be on the right side of public opinion even in a race it controls. The race has been marked by a series of scandals and mudslinging, with Tang hit by allegations of an extramarital affair, an out-of-wedlock child and a huge, illegally built addition to his home. It’s a sharp contrast to previous races, which were the kind of dull, tightly scripted events with prearranged outcomes preferred by Beijing.

The blunders by Tang, the son of a wealthy businessman, tap into wider public revulsion toward the city’s billionaires driven by a yawning rich-poor gap. Leung, whose father was a police officer, has used talk of social reforms to broaden his public appeal.

Both Tang and Leung are seen as acceptable to Beijing, but Leung has consistently led in Hong Kong public opinion polls. A former lawmaker said Thursday there have been several signs China’s leaders are changing their minds.

James Tien, honorary chairman of the pro-Beijing Liberal Party, said mid-ranking staff of the central government’s liaison office have been contacting members of his party this week “to say why don’t you support Leung?”

They were trying to “persuasively suggest that Leung is a better candidate” than Tang, rather than issuing an outright instruction, said Tien, adding that even though the comments were not made by senior officials, he interpreted them as such.

“Nobody would dare to make comments like that if they were not given instructions by a much higher authority,” said Tien, whose party has 29 votes.

In another sign, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo _ responsible for key decisions _ has been meeting with some Tang supporters to rally support for Leung. Liu Yandong met with them in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong in mainland China, according to local news reports. Tien said he heard about the meeting from people who were invited.

Coverage by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing newspapers, which are viewed as the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces, also appears to have been subtly shifting to Leung. Analysts noted that the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po newspapers on Tuesday had larger photos of Leung in their coverage of a TV debate. On Thursday, they carried stories about polls showing stronger support for Leung.

China’s leaders have said little directly on Hong Kong’s leadership race. Premier Wen Jiabao spoke about it briefly last week, saying he believed “Hong Kong will elect a chief executive who enjoys the support of the vast majority of Hong Kong people.”

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back in 1997 to China, which promised to use a hands-off approach in governing under the principle of “One Country, Two Systems.”

Leung has benefited from his rival’s mishaps but his approval rating has fallen from more than 50 percent after he was hit by accusations of links to organized crime, an eagerness to curb civil rights and secret Communist Party membership. Tang has bounced from a low of around 17 percent.

“Because Beijing is putting its weight behind him and supporting him, people are getting worried that he’s even more pro-Beijing than Henry Tang,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University.

There’s a worry Leung “actually may toe the line even more than Henry Tang,” he said.

Some tycoons are planning to defy Beijing and stick by Tang, whose policies are seen as more business friendly than the social reform-minded Leung. They include Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, and members of Tien’s party _ although Tien and three others plan to cast blank ballots because they don’t like any candidate.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)