chief executive election 2017
City Beat
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‘You always agree with your boss’, but that doesn’t mean you’re fully behind him

Public perception of rift at the top of government remains after comments by Financial Secretary John Tsang, and it’s uncertain who will have the last laugh in this chief executive competition that just keeps on growing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2016, 8:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2016, 8:42pm

“You asked me if I agree with my boss. You always agree with your boss. No question about that.” Wait a minute – these words from Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah were neither a statement of loyalty nor an expression of unity. At least not in the eyes of many Hongkongers watching last week’s much-anticipated government press conference on the Wang Chau public housing saga.

It was the second time Tsang had said something to that effect in public. The first time was when he was a guest at a seminar organised by the Post, and was asked how to comment on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying describing him and No 2 official Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as “my capable aides”.

Tsang told the audience that being in the government for decades, he had a rule for himself: never comment on your boss.

Common sense tells us that this “always agree with your boss” theory can be just a way to survive in the workplace, whether in a government bureaucracy or the private sector. It has nothing to do with real teamwork or partnership, simply because to “agree with” the boss doesn’t necessarily mean one is fully behind the boss.

And in politics, this kind of diplomatic answer can be a public relations effort which leads to open interpretation. This is exactly the case among the top three officials now, especially Leung and Tsang. It gets even more complicated as all three are seen as jockeying for the chief executive’s post.

To be frank, it is not unusual for top officials to hold opposing views or even hate each other within a government. It has been obvious for years that Leung and Tsang do not see eye to eye on public spending and other policies. But what shocked many Hongkongers was Tsang and Lam quickly and openly distancing themselves from Leung over the alleged “collusion” between the government and powerful rural forces over the Wang Chau project.

So if the joint press conference by Leung, Tsang and other housing and land development officials was a “crisis management” effort to reverse the public perception of an apparent rift at the top, the “always agree with my boss” statement did little to help.

But while many joked about this as the most intriguing political “showtime” in Hong Kong since the handover, the humour may be lost on Beijing, which should now be in the final stages of considering who to pick as the city’s next leader.

The irony is that while no one has officially declared any intention to run yet, almost everyone is convinced Leung, Lam and Tsang are the most likely candidates.

There are concerns it will eventually lead to the resignation of all three who need to kick-start their campaigns. That will mean a vacuum in the government, although, in theory, they will have acting officials backing them up – but looking for replacements is another headache.

Personal attacks are part and parcel of election campaigns, but political ethics require any cabinet member to be at least seen as on the same page as their leader unless one resigns.

Zhang Dejiang, Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong affairs, made sure to remind Leung’s team to be united during his May visit. Whoever is looking for Beijing’s blessing now should know it is a basic requirement.

As a Chinese saying goes: “The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the oriole behind.” A third party could be the accidental winner while the front-runners squabble. Given the latest drama, and with other potential “black horses” aiming for the top job, it’s uncertain who will have the last laugh in this competition that just keeps on growing.