Speculation rife over Carrie Lam’s comments on Hong Kong’s public finances

Chief Secretary’s remarks which disagree with need to follow principle of achieving fiscal balance trigger further talk of possible leadership bid

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2016, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 12:56pm

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s disagreement on the need to follow the principle of achieving a fiscal balance has sparked queries from analysts, and her remarks on public finances further fuelled talk of her possible chief executive bid.

Lam was invited by the Joint Committee for the Promotion of the Basic Law to officiate at an ambassador training programme on Friday, where she made an hour-long speech. Her views on the principle of public finances were among those that caught everyone’s attention.

“What does it mean [to keep] expenditure within the limits of revenues? When you have a lot of money – when you have a surplus of HK$800 billion – then you should utilise it,” she said.

According to Article 107 of the Basic Law, the special administrative region shall “follow the principle of keeping the expenditure within the limits of revenues in drawing up its budget, and strive to achieve a fiscal balance, avoid deficits and keep the budget commensurate with the growth rate of its gross domestic product”.

Her views were at odds with those of Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who has always emphasised the need to be prudent on public spending, citing the possibility of a structural deficit as early as 2021.

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Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said it was difficult to judge if Lam, seen as a possible challenger to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in the leadership race next year, was targeting Tsang, who also said he was “willing to take up the job as chief executive if it can help contribute to ­society”.

Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang said “one only knows it too well” when asked if she agreed that Lam was indicating an interest for the race.

James Sung Lap-kung, a political scientist from the City University, felt Lam’s remarks were “well-calculated”. “Of course she has the right to comment as she was once a top bookkeeper for the government. But making such remarks in her capacity as chief secretary is different,” Sung added.

Ray Yep Kin-man, associate head of City University’s Department of Public Policy said the seemingly inconsistent views by the two top officials may create a bad impression on the public.

“It may not be actually damaging to the government, but Lam’s deviation from the official stance may be confusing and dent public confidence,” he explained.

Coming to Tsang’s defence was Marcellus Wong Yui-keung, senior adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers and member of the Working Group on Long-Term Fiscal Planning. He insisted the government has the need to maintain fiscal sustainability, and reminded the public not to confuse expenditure with “investments” such as spending on welfare and education.

The offices of the Chief Secretary and Financial Secretary could not be reached for comment by press time.