John Tsang’s Hong Kong leadership race debut marked with wit and personal tales

In a carefully crafted speech, he pokes fun at himself and urges rebuilding trust in government

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 11:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 10:46am

Contrasting sharply with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s brief, rushed media conference on Monday to announce her bid for chief executive, John Tsang Chun-wah went for a more prepared and personal approach, telling his life story and spelling out his vision in a two-hour media session.

He kicked off his speech with a one-liner: “Long time no see.” It was a light-hearted dig at the fact he had been kept out of the limelight while waiting for Beijing’s approval of his resignation, which took a month.

In a trendy lounge of a commercial building in Admiralty, against a backdrop with the slogan, “trust, unity, hope”, Tsang stressed the importance of rebuilding trust in the government.

There was no doubt his speech was carefully crafted, aimed at soothing frayed nerves in a society divided in recent years, while also pledging allegiance to Beijing.

In the Chinese version of his speech, Tsang portrayed himself as a “patriot” even during his time in the United States.

Watch: John Tsang declares bid to lead Hong Kong

“A group of my friends and I took part in the Diaoyu Islands movement in the 1970s,” Tsang recalled, referring to his support for China over its territorial dispute with Japan.

“After this experience, we started thinking if we should finally return to our country after being guests [in America] for so many years.”

A career civil servant and a long-time minister, Tsang ducked many difficult questions from the press, often deflecting them with humour.

Asked about his edge over Lam, Tsang jokingly conceded: “I never came in first in class.” He added that he was good at listening and a strong team leader.

Asked if he harboured any hard feelings towards some of his former supporters who had switched sides to back Lam, Tsang said: “Our friends are always free to choose to do what they think they should do. If some of them move to Carrie’s side, I can say that it won’t affect our relations.”

Playing on his newfound nickname “Mr Potato Chips” – coined by the public because of his resemblance to the moustached Pringles mascot – Tsang showed off his new phone case featuring the brand icon.

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When asked why he took time to declare his bid, Tsang replied: “My resignation was only approved on Monday.

“I am a man who follows the rules and exercises self-discipline. I should not do what I am not allowed to do when I am still a government official.”

Tsang’s campaign office is helmed by retired senior civil servants Rebecca Lai Ko Wing-yee, former permanent secretary for the civil service, and Sandra Lee Suk-yee, former permanent secretary for food and health.

In contrast, Lam had already indicated her intention to run before Beijing approved her resignation. She then called a quick press conference on Monday, just three hours after Beijing gave her and Tsang the green light.

Lam’s announcement, held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai, lasted 50 minutes. She spent most of her speech rolling out her vision for Hong Kong and summarising her past work. The only personal moment came at the end when she thanked her family for their support.