China has sent one of its most senior officials to drum up flagging support for its favored candidate in forthcoming elections for Hong Kong's next leader, according to local media reports.
Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the standing committee of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) told businesspeople and politicians in neighboring Shenzhen last weekend that former second-in-command Carrie Lam is "Beijing's choice" for the next chief executive.
According to local media reports, the decision to endorse Lam was made "unanimously" by the entire Politburo of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Official nominations for the race, which will be decided by a 1,200-strong committee of Beijing's supporters in the former British colony, begin next week.
Citing Lam's lengthy administrative experience and her "patriotism," Zhang said she was the sole candidate preferred by Beijing.
Dozens of protesters marched through Hong Kong's streets against Lam's candidacy on Sunday, styling her just another version of incumbent Leung Chun-ying, or "Leung Chun-ying 2.0" after she took a tough line with protest leaders during the 2014 pro-democracy movement in the city.
Former pan-democratic lawmaker Fung Chi-wood told the rally that the limited nature of the forthcoming election is "a joke."
"I want universal suffrage, a desire close to the hearts of all Hong Kong people," Fung said. "We will do everything we can to make this happen."
"This closed-circuit election is ... just one joke after another," he said. "It is ridiculous and totally unreasonable."
A democratic upgrade had been planned for Hong Kong in 2017, but China's parliament stepped in on Aug. 31, 2014, to insist that candidates under a one-person, one-vote system would still have to be vetted by Beijing, sparking the 79-day Occupy Central movement.
Lam was instrumental in supporting Beijing's proposed changes at the time, although they were later voted down in the city's Legislative Council.
Zhang's trip south came as Lam's main rival, former financial secretary John Tsang, was 2.6 points ahead in an opinion poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
However, Tsang's lead has narrowing greatly since last month, when Lam trailed his 32.6 percent rating at just 23.9 percent.
The Chinese General Chamber of Commerce, which controls 18 of the election committee's 1,200 votes, has already said all its representatives will vote for Lam, reported the English-language newspaper The Standard, which is owned by the pro-Beijing Sing Tao News Corp.
Its chairman Jonathan Choi told the paper: "Both former secretaries are good, but after discussions we decided that Lam would be a better choice, since we had [a wider] working relationship with her, such as in social welfare."
Beijing's apparent endorsement of a single candidate comes after its refusal to publicly declare a favorite led to an embarrassingly close victory for incumbent Leung in 2012.
Leung was dogged throughout the Occupy Central movement with puns and insults referring to the 689 votes that gave him the job.
A pro-Beijing source told RFA that Beijing is "extremely nervous" about the outcome of this election and wants to "minimize variables."
The source said Zhang's main audience during his Shenzhen trip was the relatively high proportion of businesspeople with seats on the election committee, rather than politicians, particularly those who remain undecided.
‘Invisible hand’ becomes visible
Last month, pro-Beijing lawmaker Michael Tien told a local radio station that has received phone calls campaigning for a chief executive candidate and asking him to change candidates.
"It seems that the ‘invisible hand’ has become increasingly visible, with some people focused on rallying support for a particular pro-establishment candidate, to the extent that they seem to want to bar all other candidates from contesting," Tien told government broadcaster RTHK.
However, election committee members and other pro-Beijing figures have declined to confirm reports of Zhang's trip, which ran on Tuesday's front page of The Standard.
In an article headlined "Lam the Anointed One of Beijing," the paper reported that Zhang was accompanied on his trip by Sun Chunlan, head of the party's United Front Work Department, which is responsible for extending the party's influence beyond the Chinese political elite.
The January opinion poll commissioned by the Hong Kong Economic Journal newspaper showed that 63.5 percent of respondents believed Lam would get the chief executive job in March, with just 17.4 percent thinking Tsang would.
Among interviewees in the 18-29 age group, Tsang beat Lam by 75.1 percent to 16 percent, while more than half of aged 60 or above supported Lam, the paper said.
Retired judge Woo Kwok-hing saw his rating fall to 8.1 percent from 11.4 percent, while pro-Beijing politicians Jasper Tsang and Regina Ip garnered just 7.2 percent and 6.4 percent of approval ratings respectively, it said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.