Jasper Tsang’s riddle leaves Hong Kong guessing

Alice Wu says whoever succeeds the fair-minded and good-humoured veteran politician as Legco president will have big shoes to fill. The bigger question is – will he run for the top job?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2016, 5:56pm

Of all of the veteran lawmakers bowing out to make room for the younger generation to step up, perhaps the most “irreplaceable” of them all is Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the president of the Legislative Council – and that’s not because of the high office he has held for almost eight years.

But for those who have been following his “curiouser and curiouser” musings, rich in riddles and word play, in his Chinese-language columns, I’m fairly confident that this side of Tsang will not be retiring any time soon. In fact, it’s as if Tsang, now approaching retirement, is ever more comfortable showing his playful side.

Watch: Jasper Tsang looks back on his tenure as Hong Kong Legco president

Tsang recently challenged readers to solve a maths question, claiming that the answer would tell us who Hong Kong’s next chief executive would be. Tsang has been a good sport when it comes to entertaining his readers with jests and making fun of himself. When pressed for the solution to this riddle, he demurred, saying he feared his answer would “affect the election”, and promised to explain all “on the afternoon of March 26 next year”.

Though appreciated for his humour, Tsang will be better remembered for his insightfulness. As early as 2012, he highlighted the need in Hong Kong for political reconciliation. Throughout his tenure as Legco president, he has tried to play the role of facilitator between the pan-democrats and the central government. This goes beyond playing referee in legislative proceedings; he believes he should and could do something useful to bring together various political groups in Hong Kong, including those in the pan-democrat’s camp and the central government. Tsang also said that he regrets that “very little progress has been made in that direction”.

Regretful he may be, but the office that is better suited to spearheading bridge-building initiatives of that kind is that of the chief executive, not the president of Legco.

Political rivals Jasper Tsang and ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung to star in travelogue on new channel ViuTv

Perhaps Tsang will best be remembered as the most liberal member of the pro-establishment camp and he has earned the respect of friends and foes because of it. He has openly posed bold questions, challenging the accepted wisdom in Hong Kong politics. This includes questioning why pan-democrats cannot be patriots. He openly disagrees with conspiracy theorists who see the “opposition” and “protesters” as enemies, and challenges the thinking of those who refuse to engage with the central government.

Tsang cared not so much for the prize to be won, but for the job to be done. He took his job seriously, but not himself

People who have closely followed his political career cannot fail to notice his transformation as a political leader, from being the founding chairman of the city’s largest pro-establishment party to stepping down from party leadership, to becoming Legco president. As chairman of the then Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, Tsang took on the hardest challenge and planted himself in Kowloon West, the constituency in which his party had the weakest support. A maths fanatic, he knew the odds. He lost, and built his party’s support base from the ground up. As chairman, he didn’t ask for, and didn’t feet entitled to, a “sure-win” seat. Altruism in politics is a rare sight these days.

And that is something I will remember Tsang most for. He cared not so much for the prize to be won, but for the job to be done. He took his job seriously, but not himself.

Maybe he could have made better calls and rulings in Legco, but even “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung doubted whether there could have been anyone better to replace Tsang, should he have quit over the constitutional reform vote scandal last year.

Watch: Jasper Tsang non-committal on running for Hong Kong Chief Executive election

Presiding over the political circus that Legco has become is not for the faint-hearted. Critics have the luxury of watching from the peanut gallery, but keeping order and striking the right balance among those who have the least concerns for order or balance is no walk in the park. Although he has said that whoever succeeds him will do a better job, we know that his successor has big shoes to fill.

This “Riddler” is no supervillain for sure. But whether he intends to play the role of arch-rival to anyone next spring is anyone’s guess.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA