Suddenly, the race for chief executive is on, and incumbent Leung Chun-ying is in trouble.

Outgoing Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing threw down the gauntlet last week with his announcement that, if nobody else has the stomach for it, he will challenge Leung in the CE election to be held next March.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who has been playing coy with the media for months about his intentions, was quick to follow with his own declaration, telling a Commercial Radio host that he, too, is ready and willing to enter the race.

However, neither would-be challenger expressed any enthusiasm for joining the fray for Hong Kong’s top position. The post, now occupied by its third hapless inhabitant, has proven to be a big part of the problem in our structurally dysfunctional post-handover government, and a no-win proposition for anyone delusional enough to take it on.

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Outgoing Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The Legco president, who will turn 70 next year, said he was too old and lacked the necessary administrative experience to be a strong CE, but he would enter the contest if nobody else of merit steps forward.

“If no one else really wants to run,” Tsang said on RTHK’s English-language programme The Pulse, “and if it turns out that it is both necessary and possible for me to stand as a candidate to offer a genuine choice at least to the election committee, then I will consider running.”

It’s hard to know whether this half-hearted, self-deprecatory commitment is just a mask for Tsang’s ambition to end his political career at the top of Hong Kong’s leadership ladder, but one thing is for sure: he wants to oust Leung—who, remember, sacked his brother, Tsang Tak-sing, as home affairs minister last year.

As for the finance secretary, he sounded equally ambivalent about taking up the CE position in his interview with Commercial Radio.

“I am willing,” he said. “There is absolutely no doubt that I love Hong Kong. But you know that it is a bad job, not a very good job, a job that is hard to do, and anyone who takes the job will be criticised and no one will be happy.”

John Tsang budget 2016
Financial Secretary John Tsang delivering the 2016 budget. File photo: GovHK.

John Tsang’s hesitation should perhaps also be taken with a grain of salt. After all, he has clearly been testing the waters since his budget speech in February—which, delivered in positively CE-like tones in the aftermath of the Mong Kok riot, was marked not just by figures and economic forecasts but also by political rhetoric calling for reconciliation and unity.

In addition, his weekly blog and Facebook page have served as vehicles for him to express his love for the city and his concern about its future, helping to make him the most popular member of Leung’s cabinet, according to polls.

Meanwhile, the Legco president has consistently ranked as the city’s most popular lawmaker. Leung, on the other hand, remains the least popular and most divisive leader Hong Kong has seen since the handover 19 years ago. Consistently panned in public opinion polls, reviled by pan-democrats and even disliked by many pro-Beijing politicians, the current CE is clearly vulnerable. Now appears to be the time to strike.

Neither Jasper nor John Tsang had anything positive to say about Leung in their interviews. But the awkward challenges the two men have thrown down amount to a kind of shadow-boxing at this stage in the game as Leung himself has yet to declare his candidacy. And there are other potential challengers—such as Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Executive Councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and former finance chief Antony Leung Kam-chung—waiting in the wings.

And let’s not forget the most important questions: which candidates will the Chinese leadership want to see come before the 1,200-member, Beijing-controlled election committee, and who among them will be preferred?

CY Leung and Henry Tang. Photo: Wikicommons.

The last CE candidate Beijing favoured, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, went down in the flames of scandal and poor judgment in 2012, clearing the way for Leung’s surprise triumph. So the Liaison Office may choose to remain neutral in next year’s contest, while at the same time working behind the scenes to make sure no one perceived as a threat to the central government can win.

While both Jasper and John Tsang are widely seen as softer and more liberal than the uncompromising Leung, they have also passed Beijing’s litmus test for loyalty and either one of them could defeat Leung in March if given the green light.

By volunteering with such tentativeness and (perhaps feigned) reluctance, the two men seek to create a groundswell of support that then pushes their candidacies forward by popular mandate.

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Images of Leung Chun-ying at a July 1st protest. Photo: HKFP, Tom Grundy.

The goal is to get rid of Leung, who through a toxic combination of bad policy and abrasive personality has only managed to exacerbate the city’s social and political tensions over the past four years. He deserves to go, and most people would applaud his defeat.

But then what? Leung may be a particularly striking example, but post-handover history shows that anyone who sits in the CE’s office is doomed to fail. As long as this city’s leader must take his or her cues from Beijing rather than from the people of Hong Kong, the disconnect will continue, as will the tension and unrest.

It’s not just a change of personalities that we need; it is something far more fundamental and profound.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.