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G20 handshake: did Xi Jinping just give John Tsang the nod to run for Hong Kong’s top job?

Hong Kong’s finance minister on Tuesday played down the significance of his recent handshake and brief exchange with President Xi Jinping, saying it had been overly interpreted, and dismissing speculation it could be a nod from Beijing to become the city’s next leader.

In a city that watches every signal from China’s leaders when Hong Kong’s top officials visit the mainland, John Tsang Chun-wah’s encounter with the president has got the rumour mill spinning over the possibility of the financial secretary receiving Beijing’s blessing to challenge incumbent Leung Chun-ying in next year’s chief executive election.

On his return on Tuesday from the G20 summit in Hangzhou, Tsang confirmed he had brief chat with Xi during a banquet on Sunday.

“At the banquet, I had a brief chat with President Xi and we mainly talked about issues related to the G20 summit,” Tsang said. “I also thanked President Xi for inviting us to participate.”

When asked whether they spoke about next year’s leadership election, Tsang clarified: “We did not talk about anything else.”

But the financial secretary sidestepped the question when asked whether Xi had selectively approached him and offered a handshake. “It is normal for people to shake hands upon meeting,” Tsang said.

A source told the Post that Tsang was approached by Xi during the banquet, and that the president stopped at Tsang’s table to shake hands with him. The pair then had a brief chat.

“The president knows full well the public perception of his handshake with Tsang and the subsequent speculation. But he still decided to make this gesture during the dinner on Sunday,” the source said.

The encounter was not the first time the pair had met on the sidelines of a formal event. During the inauguration of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing last year, Xi was also filmed seemingly making it a point to greet the financial secretary.

The handshake game can traced back to 1996, when shipping tycoon Tung Chee-hwa was singled out for a handshake by then president Jiang Zemin at a gathering in Beijing. Tung went on to become Hong Kong’s first chief executive.

In 2005, Tung’s successor in an acting capacity, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was offered a firm handshake by then president Hu Jintao during a financial forum in Beijing. Donald Tsang later succeeded Tung as chief executive.

John Tsang, 65, is widely expected to run for the top office after stating in July that he would be “willing to take up the job as chief executive if it could help contribute to society”.

City University political scientist Dr James Sung Lap-kung said Tsang’s exchange with Xi was part of Beijing’s “prepared script”.

“While we do not need to over-interpret the gesture, it is a message by the state leadership to Leung Chun-ying that there is a backup plan in case Leung performs too badly,” Sung said.

Separately, in an interview with Phoenix TV, Tsang said the G20 summit offered Hong Kong a chance to “understand other economies and their directions of development”.

“At the same time, we can also take the opportunity to show them Hong Kong’s advantage under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy,” he added.

Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung