Former Hong Kong financial secretary John Tsang unflappable despite underdog label in chief executive race

He sticks to humour to show he is still in the game even though he is not seen as Beijing’s choice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 11:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 10:40am

A serious question was asked but if anyone was expecting an equally serious answer, John Tsang Chun-wah was not about to give it. Instead, he turned to humour to reveal his stance: he was unflappable.

Towards the end of a press conference to declare his candidacy for the chief executive race, a reporter asked: “Do you think you have a high chance of winning if you are able to secure sufficient nominations as some people might defy Beijing’s will and vote for you at last via secret ballots?”

Watch: John Tsang declares bid to lead Hong Kong

“So exciting?” asked the former financial secretary in a mix of mock horror and surprise, sending the crowd into stitches.

Tsang has been regarded as an underdog in the chief executive election because of the inordinately long time it took Beijing to approve his resignation from his post so he could enter the race.

But the question from the reporter struck at the core of the race: will enough pro-establishment voters in the 1,194-member Election Committee dare to vote for Tsang instead of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate?

The race heated up when Tsang declared he intended to reach out to the pan-democrats, who hold one-third of the votes in the committee. Could he be the dark horse who might give Lam a rude shock come March 26?

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Tsang, who joined the government in 1982 and recently became one of the most popular officials, was once touted as the man to challenge beleaguered incumbent Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, whose tenure was seen as deeply polarising. But the stakes changed last month when Leung made the surprise announcement that he was not seeking re-election, citing family reasons.

Lam, who had previously reiterated that she would retire after her term as chief secretary, subsequently made a U-turn by saying she would consider running to “keep the good policies going”.

As she emerged as the favoured candidate, Tsang also saw a number of his supporters switching to her camp amid reports he had failed to get the green light from Beijing. Several Beijing-friendly lawmakers had claimed they were told by officials from Beijing’s liaison office that Lam was a capable official whom they should back.

I am not only seeking support from the pro-democracy bloc but also the pro-establishment camp
John Tsang

A source from Tsang’s camp on Thursday admitted to the Post that the former finance chief would struggle to secure the required 150 nominations from the 1,194 Election Committee members without the help of pan-democrats. “Almost all supporters from the business sector have gone,” the source said.

Unlike the final polling which would be cast via secret ballot, all nomination lists will be made public – a practice which discourages pro-establishment figures from publicly endorsing Tsang given that he did not get Beijing’s nod. And pro-establishment candidates would also be wise not to cosy up to the pan-democratic camp for fear of upsetting Beijing.

But on Thursday, Tsang upset such calculations when he said: “I hope I can win support from all classes and people across the political spectrum.

“I am not only seeking support from the pro-democracy bloc but also the pro-establishment camp … that could then show I am someone who could be the next chief executive.”

Liberal Party lawmaker Felix Chung Kwok-pan agreed that Tsang’s odds of winning should not be ruled out at this moment as he believed President Xi Jinping had yet to state his preference.

“I would never believe Beijing has already made up its mind two whole months ahead of the election,” said Chung, seen as a liberal figure in the camp. “It’s too early to put all the eggs in one basket.”

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He believed popularity could be a game-changer, as reflected in the previous chief executive election where underdog Leung eventually beat his rival Henry Tang Ying-yen, after the latter was plagued by scandals.

He also argued that getting nominations from pan-democrats would not necessarily be a bad thing for Tsang as it could demonstrate his ability to forge dialogue with different parties.

Those willing to vote for him via secret ballots would definitely outnumber those who dare to do so publicly, he believed.

Tsang on Thursday also took a finely calibrated stand in his 20-minute speech. While trying to appeal to people across the political spectrum and pledging to heal the divisions of society, he went to some length to impress upon Beijing his national pride and loyalty.

Declaring that Hong Kong could not have become what it was today if it was not part of China, he also made clear that he was no fan of those advocating Hong Kong independence. “They flatly do not know what Hong Kong is, because China has forever been the core of Hongkongers’ identity,” he said.

Tsang also embraced Xi’s vision of a Chinese renaissance.

Meanwhile, the target of his lobbying, the pan-democrats, were still undecided on whether to go for a “lesser of two evils strategy” of choosing between him and Lam or to spoil their vote.

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Political scientist Ma Ngok of Chinese University said “it would be tough” to get “300 votes and ask all pan-democrat members to act in unison”.

But, he added: “Some of them could come under pressure for not nominating Tsang if his popularity continues to lead that of Lam’s with a growing gap.”

On Thursday, Tsang launched his election Facebook page, with the page drawing more than 50,000 likes in a day.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said Tsang had reignited Hongkongers’ hopes by pointing out the current administration’s governance issue, urging him to put his words into action.

Democrats 300+, the alliance of the democratic Election Committee members, will meet on Saturday to work out a strategy.

Whether or not they or Beijing would side with him and give him the much-talked about red or green light, Tsang made clear he was undeterred. Pointing to the choice of green for his logo, he quipped: “It was deliberate.”