Contestants limber up ahead of starter's gun

Mr Jasper Tsang has some hoping he will run. Ms Lam is known for being unflappable.
Mr Tsang has amassed much local goodwill.
Mr Jasper Tsang has some hoping he will run. Ms Lam is known for being unflappable.
Chief Executive Leung is keen on a second term.
Mr Antony Leung is a former financial chief.
Ms Lam is known for being unflappable.
Mr Tsang has amassed much local goodwill.
Mr Antony Leung is a former financial chief.
Chief Executive Leung is keen on a second term.
Ms Ip used to be in charge of security.
Ms Ip used to be in charge of security.
Mr Jasper Tsang has some hoping he will run.

Will it be 689, the Calm One or Mr Pringles? Or perhaps, no joke, it could be the Jester.

Eight months before Hong Kong is due to select its next leader, the city is teeming with conjecture on who Beijing will eventually tap to run in a vetted race.

While all the potential candidates have been coy so far, campaigning appears to have started.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, long said to be keen on a second term, held forth on his achievements in a rare interview with the South China Morning Post two weeks ago. Last Tuesday, he released a report on his government's work, detailing progress on various fronts, including in land shortage.

Observers say while Mr Leung is unpopular among Hong Kongers, Beijing is likely to look favourably on him as his loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party is "not in doubt".

"It would have been a nice bonus if he is liked by Hong Kongers, but that is not the key criterion for Beijing," says a high-placed source of Mr Leung - nicknamed 689 for the number of votes he garnered from the 1,200-member Election Committee during his first run in 2012.

Observers say while Mr Leung is unpopular among Hong Kongers, Beijing is likely to look favourably on him as his loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party is "not in doubt".

Mr Leung has said he will wait until after September, presumably after the Legislative Council (Legco) elections, to decide.

Other possible contenders could be the No. 2 and No. 3 in the government - Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, known for her unflappable demeanour, and Financial Secretary John Tsang, often referred to as Mr Pringles for his resemblance to the potato chips mascot.

The latter has been burnishing his "localist" credentials. He has amassed goodwill by expressing support for the Hong Kong football team when they were up against China, and citing Cantopop lyrics in his Budget speech.

Legco president Jasper Tsang, who recently amused the city with riddles about potential CE candidates in a newspaper column, has ruled himself out. But supporters remain hopeful that the man seen as the most liberal-minded among Beijing loyalists will change his mind.

Others said to be keen include former security secretary Regina Ip and former financial secretary Antony Leung.

Beijing will choose at least two from these contenders to run. The Election Committee, comprising mainly members of the establishment, will then vote, largely based on the central government's directive.

One candidate is likely to be Mr Leung - or a proxy, Ms Lam perhaps - while the other will be backed by the city's tycoons. A third candidate might come from the pan-Democrat camp but is deemed to stand no chance.

In 2012, Mr Leung was up against former chief secretary Henry Tang, favoured by the business community and the initial shoo-in, until he was felled by an illegal basement scandal. The third man was Mr Albert Ho, then chairman of the Democrat Party.

Li Xueying

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Likely runners limber up ahead of starter's gun'. Print Edition | Subscribe