Will popular John Tsang even get nominated for Hong Kong’s leadership race?

Albert Cheng worries that the former financial secretary may not get on the ballot paper because the pro-establishment electors have flocked to Carrie Lam, Beijing’s perceived pick, and the pan-democrats are dawdling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 6:26pm

The nomination period for the chief executive election ends next Wednesday, and Beijing’s mouthpieces in Hong Kong are desperate to ensue that former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has an easy ride to victory.

Earlier this month, reportedly, the central government even went to the extent of having National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang (張德江) relay its message to a coterie of Election Committee members that Lam is the one and only person it supports. In fact, the central government’s liaison office has exhausted all means to rally people behind Lam. It even sought to create the impression that Hong Kong’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and his two sons favoured Lam. It played up the Li family’s Lunar New Year ritual of visiting the liaison office. But Li wisely said he would not publicly back any of the four candidates.

The situation is getting worrying as former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, the only viable contender who can challenge Lam, is still unable to secure enough nominations to become an official candidate.

The Election Committee members from the pro-establishment camp have apparently fallen into line, lest they be seen by Beijing to be acting in defiance of its instruction. Any establishment figures who back Tsang in public may suffer “economic sanctions” if they rely on the mainland for business.

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It is thus obvious that Tsang can only receive a minimal number of nominations from pro-establishment members. He will have to rely on the democratic bloc in the committee, who have more than 300 votes, to get through. The so-called pro-democrats, however, remain indecisive. This has irritated Tsang’s supporters.

A candidate needs at least 150 nominations from the 1,194 Election Committee members. The names of the nominators will be open for public inspection. Li’s stance will set an example for others in the business sector who do not want to offend any contenders. At the same time, since the tycoon also made it clear that he would cast his secret ballot on March 26 for the person who would uphold the “one country, two systems” principle and the rule of law, his example may make it more difficult for Lam to get the 600 or more votes she needs to win the election. When polling day comes, who knows how many of her supposed supporters will defect to the Tsang camp?

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Of course, all of this depends on Tsang getting nominated first. Up until now, only the Democratic Party and some Election Committee members from the legal, insurance and education sectors have confirmed their support for Tsang. The majority of the remainder of the 326 members of the pro-democratic camp have stayed non-committal. This is disappointing because they are expected to support in principle the most popular contender.

Tsang has eclipsed his rivals consistently in opinion polls, and popularity matters. Even the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Wang Guangya (王光亞), has listed popularity and acceptability to the people as one of the four criteria for the next chief executive. The pro-democratic camp should not refuse to embrace Tsang.

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To be sure, Tsang is not the most outstanding in terms of policy advocacy. But his interpersonal skills and moderate governing style have won him popular support. He is a breath of fresh air after years of intransigent governance under the Leung Chun-ying administration. Tsang is receptive to different opinions. This is a prerequisite for our next leader.

I believe transport is a one vital policy area where Tsang can improve his political platform to make himself even more palatable to the people. He could consider a government takeover of the MTR Corporation, which would continue to adopt a business-oriented operation model but, instead of maximising profits, it should aim to recover its operating costs. This can result in lower fares, to benefit commuters. The government should also acquire all bus companies and cross-harbour tunnels, to become more effective in rationalising tolls and easing congestion.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk