City Beat

New Hong Kong finance chief faces first major test when he delivers his budget on Wednesday

Paul Chan is expected to give people a sense of ownership and sharing of the public wealth, which may determine whether he gets a job in the new administration

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 10:36pm

It can be a problem, although a “happy” one, trying to figure out how best to spend money when there is plenty to spare. That can well describe the dilemma the city’s new finance minister, Paul Chan Mo-po, is facing before he unveils his maiden budget on Wednesday.

It could also be his last, depending on whether he will get a new term in July under the next administration. Appointed by Beijing in mid-January, the former Development Bureau chief succeeded John Tsang Chun-wah who resigned to run for the city’s top job.

With only about six months left for the current administration, Chan’s spending blueprint is as important for Hong Kong as it is for him, personally. In some quarters, Chan is perceived as a “Leung fan” – a supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the outgoing leader who has had a difficult time with Tsang as they did not see eye-to-eye on the allocation of government funding in certain areas.

Chan was strongly recommended by Leung to Beijing for the post, expecting him to be more in line with his viewson public spending. That would give Leung’s government greater room for manoeuvring on policy in its remaining months, and hopefully also lay down general directions for Hong Kong’s future economic development.

Whether you like him or not, it is not fair to judge Chan purely from the “Leung fan” perspective. Without doubt he’s supportive of Leung. He is trying his best, in particular, to find the land required to meet Leung’s ambitious housing goal – a difficult mission that is far from accomplished.

To his credit, he has won the understanding and support of many of his Development Bureau colleagues through his hard work and sincerity.

Now comes a daunting new challenge – to not only differentiate himself from his predecessor in terms of public finance philosophy, but also to win the trust of his future boss and Beijing.

Recent eyebrow-raising comments by former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, widely seen as Beijing’s preferred choice for the next chief executive, were quite telling. In a radio interview,

Lam made it clear that if she were elected, she might even fire a disobedient financial secretary, although that would be an extreme step.

“Under today’s accountability system, the chief executive is responsible for the whole [special administrative region],” Lam said. “Without monetary or financial capability, he or she can hardly be held fully accountable to [Hong Kong] and the central government.”

Some immediately associated her remarks with the bitter “professional working relations” between Leung and Tsang, as referenced by the latter on many occasions. But it can also be seen as Lam’s reminder, if not warning, to her future top aides, including the finance chief.

Meanwhile, it sent a message to Beijing that she needs a team that can work with her. As the Chinese saying goes, “Every emperor brings in his own courtiers.” In any leadership consolidation, personal preference is unavoidable, but that should not be the only factor.

All of Hong Kong’s principal officials are appointed by Beijing, but largely based on the recommendation of the chief executive. Understandably, a lesson for both Beijing and the city’s future leader is the strong need for greater unity within the government. That has to transcend personal favouritism in forming a governing team.

It is a bit too early to talk about a next term for Chan, but managing a huge fiscal reserve which is the envy of his counterparts in many other governments, he is expected to give people a sense of ownership and sharing of the public wealth. More importantly, he needs to show Hong Kong a way out for its economic future at this critical juncture.

Let’s see if Chan passes his first major test on Wednesday.