It has been clear ever since Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor, left Hong Kong following its handover to China, that the road to the territory's Government House runs through Beijing. With its current incumbent, the unpopular Mr Leung Chun Ying, announcing that he would not seek a second term as Chief Executive, the field is open to fresh candidates. The latest to throw her hat into the ring is Ms Regina Ip, a former secretary for security in the Hong Kong administration and co-founder of the pro-Beijing New People's Party. Retired judge Woo Kwok Hing had previously announced his intention to contest. Two others, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Finance Secretary John Tsang, are also believed to be awaiting Beijing's nod to announce candidacies.
Ms Ip's campaign theme - "Win back Hong Kong" - reveals not only the widespread discontent with Beijing's ever-tightening grasp of the bustling, entrepreneurial territory but also the reality that no candidate can go forward without Beijing's support. Two years ago, Hong Kongers poured into the streets and clashed with the police in the so-called Umbrella Revolution that clearly caught Beijing by surprise. Ms Ip features in Hong Kong's political history. It was her unsuccessful push for an anti-subversion law in 2003 that brought half a million Hong Kongers onto the streets. Her legitimacy with Hong Kongers in tatters, she stepped down from her post and went on a sabbatical to the United States. A first bid for Chief Executive, in 2012, failed.
As Ms Ip's position indicates, pro-Beijing officials, taking a cue from the mainland, place deep emphasis on the territory's stability. Like governments everywhere, this one, too, does not countenance treason or subversion. Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal upheld the disqualification of two lawmakers over their refusal to take the requisite oaths of office, which showed that the judiciary is largely with the administration over the issue. At their swearing-in ceremony, the two had instead used words insulting to China and held up banners saying "Hong Kong is not China".
Beijing would be wise to appreciate, if not acknowledge, the Hong Kongers' deep desire for a certain autonomy that preserves the liberal spirit that gave the place its character. Its attempts to build Shanghai as a financial centre have not destroyed Hong Kong's appeal. Hong Kong, with its respected central bank, continues to thrive. Certainly, no well-wisher of Hong Kong will ignore the need for political stability on which its economic buoyancy rests. Good relations with Beijing are key to that stability, a fact that only the most irresponsible of Hong Kong politicians would ignore. However, Beijing, too, must realise that the candidate who will eventually succeed in the March polls will need not only its endorsement but also backing from the public.