Chief executive candidate John Tsang has revealed that his handshake with Chinese President Xi Jinping was one of the factors he considered before joining the leadership race.

In 2015, Xi made a deliberate detour to offer a firm handshake to Tsang at the inauguration of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, held in Beijing. Local media speculated at the time that the handshake signaled Xi’s preference of Tsang over incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying for the next chief executive term.

Xi Jinping (L), John Tsang (R) at AIIB meeting. File Photo: Now TV.

In an interview with Now TV on Thursday, Tsang was asked whether the handshake influenced his decision to run in the chief executive election.

“[The handshake] was a good thing and I felt very honoured. But my main consideration was how to further serve Hong Kong society,” he said.

When pressed to elaborate on the handshake, Tsang added: “It was one of the factors, but of course not the only one.”

It was not the only handshake Tsang exchanged with Xi. Last September, Tsang confirmed that he shook hands with Xi during the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in Hangzhou, though he said that the gesture was overinterpreted.

Xi Jinping. File Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via Flickr.

Symbolic gesture, political message

Hong Kong media’s sensitivity to the gestures of Chinese 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 leader the following year.

In 2004, Donald Tsang, then chief secretary, attended a forum in Beijing where ex-leader Hu Jintao gave him a firm handshake. He succeeded Tung as chief executive a few months later.

When former chief secretary Carrie Lam was the only official present to receive a hug from Tung at a public event last December, local media wondered if Lam was the “chosen one” for Hong Kong’s leadership position. A month later, Lam declared her candidacy for the race.

Lam’s rival Regina Ip later said that Tung had also hugged her in the past.

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.”

Besides Tsang, Lam and Ip, a fourth candidate is ex-judge Woo Kwok-hing. Unlike his opponents, Woo does not have close ties with politicians owing to his judicial career. Since declaring his candidacy, Woo has been a vocal critic of Chinese government bodies interfering in Hong Kong’s elections and internal affairs.

Ellie Ng

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