Chief Secretary Carrie Lam was the only official to receive a hug from former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa during Tuesday’s Nanjing Massacre National Memorial Day ceremony – a gesture that led some to wonder if Lam is the “chosen one” for Hong Kong’s leadership position.

Tung, now the vice-chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – China’s top advisory body – gave handshakes to all other public officers, including his successor Leung Chun-ying. Lawmaker Regina Ip, who also attended the event, went up to Tung for a handshake after the ceremony.

Senior officials attended the ceremony for Nanjing Massacre National Memorial Day. Photo: GovHK.

Ip is rumoured to be resigning from the Executive Council – the government’s top advisory body – sometime before Thursday, when she is expected to announce her chief executive candidacy.

Lam said last Saturday that she may consider joining the race in light of Leung’s surprise announcement last week that he is not seeking re-election. Her colleague Finance Secretary John Tsang, who is tipped to run, handed in his resignation Monday and is on leave pending Beijing’s approval of his departure. Tsang did not attend Tuesday’s ceremony.

Tung declined to comment as to whether his hug meant that Beijing had chosen her to be Hong Kong’s next leader. Lam was also silent on whether she will be running in the upcoming chief executive election.

This is not the first time Tung has hugged Lam in public. Earlier this month, Tung gave a hug to Lam at a Chinese General Chamber of Commerce event. In comparison, the ex-leader’s attitude towards his successor Leung was lukewarm while he failed to greet Tsang at the event, according to Apple Daily.

Symbolic gesture

Local media are sensitive to Chinese politicians’ interactions at public events. It led to speculations by local media as to whether Lam received blessing from Beijing.

Speculation surrounding the gestures of China’s leaders stems from historical moments since 1996. In 1996, Tung won the handshake of then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin while campaigning for the chief executive election. Tung became Hong Kong’s first chief executive the following year.

Tung Chee-hwa’s handshake with Jiang Zemin.

After Tung stepped down in 2005, Donald Tsang, chief secretary at the time,  attended a forum in Beijing where ex-leader Hu Jintao offered a 11-second long handshake.

Last year, incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping made a deliberate detour to offer a firm handshake to John Tsang at the inauguration of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing. Xi again shook hands with Tsang at another event in September.

The handshakes sparked speculation that Beijing favoured Tsang as Hong Kong’s next leader, although the finance secretary dismissed the rumours at the time.

The Chinese University’s political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung previously said that “the Chinese government must be aware that Xi’s handshake will lead to speculation. Beijing must know the rules of the game and definitely know that Hongkongers will interpret it.”

John Tsang. File Photo: GovHK.

Zhang Xiaoming

Meanwhile, the China Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming – China’s top official in Hong Kong – was absent at Tuesday’s event. His assistant attended the ceremony, alongside representatives from the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison and the Hong Kong office of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

See also: After CY, China Liaison Office director is next for the chop, triumphant pro-Beijing paper claims

The pro-Beijing Sing Pao newspaper, which forecast Leung Chun-ying’s demise, wrote on Sunday that Zhang – a close ally of Leung – would soon be removed from power following the chief executive’s announcement last week that he is not seeking a second term. The paper claimed the events were connected to the Chinese Communist Party’s purges of Xi’s rivals.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.