Chief Executive Election

Two front runners in race for Hong Kong’s top job battle with bout of bad publicity

John Tsang tries to dispel fears he would take ‘hands-off’ approach if elected, while Carrie Lam criticised on social media for giving money to illegal beggar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 January, 2017, 8:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2017, 8:59am

Two front runners in the race to become Hong Kong’s next chief executive tried to brush off a round of negative publicity during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Former financial chief John Tsang Chun-wah tried to dispel concerns that his repeated use of a Chinese idiom to describe his policy visions suggested he would take a “hands-off” approach to governing, while former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was attacked on social media for giving money to an illegal beggar.

When he declared his candidacy on January 19, Tsang said society should listen to teenagers, some of whom might have wanted to create space in the community to “rest and recuperate”.

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He used the same words when he proposed abolishing the controversial Territory-wide System Assessment, which tests pupils’ learning in key areas.

“We should let the schools and parents put down the inner demons of TSA and allow them to rest and recuperate,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Tsang’s repetition of the words have led some to speculate that he would adopt a non-interventionist and laissez-faire approach if he was elected, or worse still, sit on the many problems the government faces.

Even his former boss, chief executive Leung Chun-ying took an apparent dig at Tsang on a recent radio programme. “If we adopt the ‘recuperate and laissez-faire’ approach and our competitors don’t, you can imagine the consequences,” he commented.

Tsang hit back on a television talk show on Saturday.

“Many people have misunderstood [the words] – I don’t know whether this was deliberate or due to a genuine lack of knowledge,” he said.

“What I meant was really simple. We need to have less arguments – I believe many of us have become tired over the past few years. From day to night we see opposing, friend-or-foe, black-and-white situations,” he said. “By rest and recuperate I am referring to the political bickering.”

Tsang was no stranger to criticisms over his non-intervention approach to the market. Fellow chief executive contender Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee has said Tsang was “a bit of a slacker” as financial secretary, with few achievements under his belt.

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Meanwhile, Lam’s bid for the top job got a boost on Saturday when her campaign office announced the appointment of Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai as her senior adviser.

Fan is the city’s sole delegate to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which heads mainland China’s legislature, and has long been a respected figure in the pro-establishment camp.

“Lam is a responsible person ... she does not fear difficulties and rises to challenges. With Hong Kong being in a time of turmoil and lacking clear directions, we need someone with a strong will and vision,” Fan said in a 90-second video uploaded to Lam’s election homepage.

Fan’s endorsement further fuelled suggestions that Lam is Beijing’s favourite candidate.

But she also got herself into controversy during a neighbourhood visit in Sha Tin on Friday afternoon.

During the stop, Lam kneeled down in front of an elderly beggar while reaching to her left pocket for a HK$500 note – in front of a media scrum.

“Do you have a place to live?” Lam repeatedly asked.

When Lam found out the elderly woman did not understand Cantonese, she switched to Putonghua and confirmed the woman was not from Hong Kong.

“You’ve had a hard time,” Lam said, before placing the HK$500 note in her hands.

Media reports suggested the woman arrived from central Hubei province on a visitor visa to beg for money to repay family debts.

Videos capturing Lam’s encounter went viral on social media, drawing mostly negative comments.

Many also dismissed it as a publicity stunt. “Lam clearly doesn’t understand … [if] you give HK$10 to a beggar, you attract another 100 [beggars] asking for HK$10,” one Facebook user wrote.

Lam’s election office later explained that she only acted out of “heartache”, and had overlooked the possibility of attracting criticism.

According to the Summary Offences Ordinance, “any person who wanders abroad, or places himself or herself in any public place, street or waterway to beg or gather alms” is liable to a maximum fine of HK$500 and 12 months’ imprisonment.

Asked about the incident on Saturday, Lam’s successor, chief secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said the public should let the matter go.

“I know what you are trying to say. But in this environment, depending on the scenario, if she did it out of love and kindness, rather than encouraging begging, then we should not be too stubborn,” Cheung said. “Of course, we do not encourage begging.”