Beijing approved the resignation of two top Hong Kong officials yesterday, paving the way for them to run in the upcoming Chief Executive election.
Hours after it was announced that the State Council had given its approval, Mrs Carrie Lam, 59 - who tendered her resignation as Chief Secretary last Thursday - officially declared her candidacy for the election at a press conference.
But Financial Secretary John Tsang, 65, who waited 35 days for his resignation to be approved, did not immediately declare his bid for the top job.
Thanking the central government for "its trust, encouragement and support" yesterday, he said only that he had been considering whether to run and will hold a press conference in the coming days to announce his decision.
The next leader of the city will be selected by a 1,194-member election committee on March 26, in what could be one of the most competitive races since the 1997 handover. Two other high-profile candidates set to run are former security chief Regina Ip, 66, and retired judge Woo Kwok Hing, 70.
At this juncture, it is incumbent upon the government to restore faith, propel the economy, reduce inequality and build greater consensus.
MRS CARRIE LAM
Mrs Ip said yesterday that she would not quit the race, even though some members of the election committee, who had earlier pledged to support her, have switched their support to Mrs Lam.
In the Chief Executive election in 2012, Mrs Ip failed to secure enough nominations from the 1,200-member election committee.
A contender needs 150 votes from the committee to qualify and at least 601 votes to win.
Political analysts said there have been signs that Mrs Lam has a higher standing in the eyes of Beijing officials ever since she indicated her interest last month to lead the city, after incumbent Leung Chun Ying said he would not seek re-election.
Over the weekend, pro-Beijing Chinese newspapers like Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po ran positive reports and commentaries about Mrs Lam, suggesting that she is Beijing's preferred candidate, said Dr Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
He said Mrs Lam appears more confident in her bid, which could mean she had siphoned off some support from the business sector, which strongly backs Mr Tsang.
Mr Tsang "has given the impression that he is wavering and still counting the nominations", he said.
Announcing her candidacy yesterday, Mrs Lam said the eventual winner would have to win the support of the city's more than seven million people. She said she would continue the "good policies" of the current administration, but more transparency and "new blood" were needed in the next government.
The civil servant of more than 36 years said she has met central government officials to inform them of her interest in running, but did not seek "appointment" by Beijing.
Analysts said the next chief executive will face the challenge of leading an increasingly polarised city, as underlined by rising street protests and pro-independence politicians who fear the erosion of the city's autonomy.
Acknowledging this, Mrs Lam said she shared many people's worry about the discontent in society.
"I know our younger generation is concerned about the lack of upward mobility and the cost of housing. I share the desires of many - that we must reignite Hong Kong's can-do spirit," she said.
"At this juncture, it is incumbent upon the government to restore faith, propel the economy, reduce inequality and build greater consensus."
Yesterday, Beijing also approved Hong Kong's development secretary Paul Chan as a replacement for Mr Tsang, and labour and welfare secretary Matthew Cheung to replace Mrs Lam.