Petty talk should not take focus off Hong Kong's needs

Gossip over Ronnie Chan's comments about financial secretary should not distract Legco

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 2013, 4:34am

Journalists in Hong Kong must feel lucky that we live in an exciting town. Take last week. While the media focus was on an unprecedented lunch between Beijing's top envoy here and lawmakers on both sides of the political fence, a heated debate started elsewhere and the media and public attention quickly switched to the topic: Is Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah a "great sinner"?

It started with one remark by tycoon Ronnie Chan Chichung, chairman of Hang Lung Group.

During a public forum he was hosting, Chan criticised John Tsang for sitting on a huge fiscal reserve and not spending the money on projects that are good for Hong Kong's future.

"In history, [Tsang] will become a great sinner of Hong Kong," Chan said.

Like a tossed stone that can cause a thousand ripples in a pond, Chan's remarks immediately created lots of "political ripples". Not least because it came from him, a long-time supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

It is Chan's steadfast backing of Leung that has allowed the chief executive to rebut the criticism that he lacked support from the business sector.

So was Chan, a person known for his "straight talking", but sometimes cynical style, simply speaking his mind or was he reflecting the chief executive's views?

To put any rumours to bed, Tsang branded Chan's accusation as "too much" and dismissed speculation of any tension between himself and Leung.

"We meet every day, how could we be on bad terms?" Tsang said.

Leung meanwhile reiterated that he and Tsang "share the same vision" in doing what is good for Hong Kong. To the surprise of many, the next day, Chan fired another salvo, saying Tsang was "foolish" for giving out cash goodies of up to HK$200 billion over the years, saying that the money could be better spent on the "right things" such as building more hospitals and schools.

It is an open secret that Tsang was not picked by Leung to be his financial secretary.

Tsang, who was very close to former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was asked to stay, apparently by Beijing. It is believed that Beijing wanted someone familiar with finance and the government's operations to assist Leung and also to display a picture of unity to the public. (Principal officials of Hong Kong are nominated by the chief executive and then appointed by Beijing.)

But before the Leung-Tsang partnership could achieve Beijing's desired effect, there was a realisation that Tsang's prudent fiscal philosophy did not quite gel with some people and his policies sometimes failed to meet the needs of Leung's ambitious demands in certain areas.

But people close to Leung and Tsang told the South China Morning Post that it was only natural to have disagreements in any cabinet and it did not necessarily mean the chief and his financial caretaker were on bad terms.

"Leung usually tries hard to convince whoever disagrees with him to accept his ideas. By the same token, the financial secretary may sometimes insist on his principles, but he is just doing his job," a person close to the government said.

However, another government source pointed out that Tsang sometimes had to deal with the "usual phenomenon" of politicians demanding more sweeteners for their voters.

Meanwhile, Ronnie Chan said he was expressing his personal views and that he had not met Leung very often since he became chief executive.

To be fair, it is pure guesswork trying to figure out the relationships among Chan, Tsang and Leung.

We should stop gossiping and focus on how the government can make full and better use of its more than HK$700 billion in reserves, which is equal to 23 months of government expenditure.

Equally important, let's work out how to get government project funding approved in our noisy Legco.