Budget delivers for tortoise John Tsang
He has been likened to the proverbial tortoise trying to overtake the hare, so the acclaim in which Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has been basking since his HK$75 billion budget giveaway on Wednesday must have come as a pleasant surprise to him.
No wonder pundits are saying that the race between Mr Tsang and Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen for the post of chief executive has taken an interesting turn. Both are tipped as likely contenders in the 2012 election.
The big question is: Will Mr Tsang's popularity bonanza be a one-off?
Pundits applied Aesop's fable about the valiant tortoise that wins a race against the overconfident hare to the race between Mr Tsang and Mr Tang last summer, after a poll by the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme showed Mr Tang with a big lead in the popularity stakes. Seventy-four per cent of respondents agreed Mr Tang was an appropriate candidate for chief secretary; 48 per cent considered Mr Tsang an appropriate financial secretary; while 38 per cent replied 'don't know'.
Mr Tsang's low approval rating and low name recognition caused anxiety among his aides. Since then, he has embarked on a 'get to know me' drive.
He shared his thoughts with youth groups and university students on issues such as leadership.
In his blog launched in August on the government's website, the official turned minister sought to project himself as a man of many faces. His writing covered globalisation, movies such as Ang Lee's wartime drama Lust, Caution and his observations on visits abroad.
Still, John Tsang's popularity was lagging considerably behind that of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and other key cabinet members. Not any more.
A survey conducted hours after he delivered his maiden budget speech on Wednesday found his popularity rating had shot up 12 points, to 67.9 out of 100, surpassing the 63.3 rating the public gave his boss, Donald Tsang, last week. It is also higher than the rating of 62.2 given Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung and the 62.7 Mr Tang earned in another survey earlier last month.
There is no doubting the surge in John Tsang's popularity is linked to the warm reception for his budget measures, with which 68 per cent of people surveyed pronounced themselves satisfied - a higher score than the public gave the previous budgets delivered by Mr Tang and his predecessor, Antony Leung Kam-chung.
The financial secretary responded positively to the majority of the many demands made on the government's purse by people from different walks of life, though he did draw criticism for refusing to raise the old-age allowance.
Some of his measures exceeded people's expectations. Two measures in particular - a HK$1,800 electricity subsidy for 2.4 million households and an injection of HK$6,000 into the Mandatory Provident Fund accounts of low-income earners - impressed most people since they showed a desire to ensure everyone benefits from the massive HK$115.6 billion budget surplus.
His budgeting of HK$50 billion to promote health-care reform is aimed at silencing critics of the government's lack of political will to tackle long-term issues. It will do a lot to foster a sense of togetherness. That will be helpful when the time comes to debate such reform.
Given his closeness to Donald Tsang, the challenge for John Tsang has been, all along, to emerge from the shadow of his mentor. While sticking to his no-frills style, the financial chief has sought to give a personal touch by embracing what he called in his closing remarks on Wednesday the Hong Kong spirit of 'ready to face, dare to hope'.
His popularity and political acumen will face their real test when he has to confront contentious issues such as widening the tax base and making changes to health-care financing and the old-age allowance.