Hong Kong leadership contender John Tsang walking a fine line in trying to please all

In reaching out for support from the pan-democrats, the former financial secretary risks alienating his backers in the pro-establishment camp

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 11:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 9:22am

John Tsang Chun-wah’s charm offensive to win the hearts and minds of people outside the pro-establishment camp was warmly received by pan-democrats on Monday.

But whether his carefully crafted platform for the chief executive election will cost him the support of pro-government figures and he ends up pleasing nobody are the big questions for his camp going into the nomination period next week.

The former financial secretary pledged to restart the electoral reform process and adopted a fairly lenient approach towards reviving legislative work to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, a move seen by Beijing as the city’s constitutional duty to safeguard national security.

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Tsang, who had earlier said it would be irresponsible for the next administration to restart the political reform process if the political climate remained unchanged, made a U-turn by promising to relaunch the process “with the greatest determination and courage” should he be elected.

“Before the realisation of ‘dual universal suffrage’ [for election of chief executive and all lawmakers], the debate on political reform will not abate. There will be continual challenge to the government’s legitimacy; and the policies to improve livelihoods and promote economic development will be scuttled by political debates,” he said.

In June 2015, the Hong Kong government’s proposal for the 2017 chief executive election – which followed Beijing’s framework under which Hongkongers would choose from two or three candidates endorsed by a 1,200-strong nominating committee – was voted down in the Legislative Council.

Tsang did not mention the restrictive framework laid down by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in 2014 in his 73-page platform.

But he did admit during his press conference later in the afternoon it was a “crucial link” in the city’s political reform process.

“I hope we can reach consensus after different groups engage in thorough discussions. I would then relay the consensus to the central government and I believe it would make an accurate judgment,” Tsang said.

His stance on political reform is more proactive than that of his arch-rival, former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who last month expressed reservations about relaunching the process as it had wasted a lot of energy of government officials in the past few years.

Tsang’s moderate stance on electoral reform has drawn applause from some pan-democrats, whose support is vital for him to get the entry ticket to the chief executive election.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said he felt Tsang had shown sincerity about restarting political reform despite the possible difficulties involved.

An aspirant for chief executive needs to secure at least 150 nominations from the 1,194-strong Election Committee to qualify as a formal candidate.

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A person familiar with Tsang’s campaign said he was unlikely to get more than 100 nominations from pro-establishment members of the committee, hence the need to woo the pan-democrats. As Lam emerged as Beijing’s favoured candidate, Tsang has seen a number of his supporters switching to her camp amid reports he had failed to get the green light to run from Beijing

Pan-democrats, who secured more than a quarter of the seats on the committee, will probably either nominate Tsang or retired judge Woo Kwok-hing.

Four pan-democratic members of the accountancy subsector endorsed Tsang after a meeting with him on Monday afternoon.

Ronald Kung Yiu-fai, convenor of the four-member pro-democratic group ABCPA – Anyone But CY and his Political Alliance – said they would nominate him en bloc.

“We do not like to see the policies of the current government continued by the next government. And we believe that Tsang is the least likely to do so, so we decided to nominate him en bloc.”

In an attempt to win Beijing’s trust, Tsang said there was no reason to delay the enactment of local national security legislation to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Under Article 23, the Hong Kong government is obliged to enact laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the central government.

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To allay fears of pan-democrats and the legal sector, Tsang proposed conducting a thorough public consultation on such legislation, including publishing a white bill, to reveal the precise wording of the proposed laws and allow for more detailed public scrutiny.

The legal sector and human rights groups called for publication of a white bill when the government released a consultation paper on national security legislation in September 2002. But officials rejected the call.

The government was forced to shelve the national security bill in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets in fear that their freedoms and rights would be curbed.

Political scientist Ma Ngok, of Chinese University, believed the legislation to implement Article 23 was the “bottom line” of Beijing that no chief executive aspirant could dodge.

Fellow Chinese University academic Ivan Choy Chi-keung said Tsang wanted to tell Beijing he did not avoid any political hot potatoes by taking up the issue of national security legislation.

Tsang also put forward a litany of proposals which have been advocated by pan-democrats. He suggested implementing the recommendation of an independent panel in 2012 to subject the chief executive to sections 3 and 8 of Prevention of Bribery Ordinance to boost public confidence in the integrity of the government.

Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung and Jeffie Lam

How rivals for the top job compare on key issues

Article 23 legislation

John Tsang: start as soon as possible with the less controversial areas; pledged to conduct full public consultation, including publishing proposed legislation in the form of a white bill

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee: carry out “suitable measures” to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law

Woo Kwok-hing: would not enact national security legislation before the city reached consensus on political reform

Carrie Lam: government would need to take a “pragmatic approach” and wait for the right time

Political reform

John Tsang: restart reform based on Beijing-decreed blueprint with determination and courage; pledged to fully convey Hongkongers’ views to central government

Regina Ip: relaunch consultation based on Beijing’s framework, which “should not be overthrown”

Woo Kwok-hing: implement “one man, one vote” for chief executive in 2022 and gradually broaden electoral roll of the proposed nominating committee from the expected 250,000 to three million voters

Carrie Lam: city should wait for right time to revive stalled reform process, which would “wear down the officials in charge and bring about disputes in society”


John Tsang: study implementing a “two-tier” progressive profits tax and “negative income tax” to help low-income ­families

Regina Ip: utilise government revenue and stimulate the economy, narrow wealth gap and support minorities

Woo Kwok-hing: seize opportunities offered by Beijing’s “belt and road” initiative, and diversify the economy by upgrading tourism industry to attract more high-end travellers

Carrie Lam: adopt a new philosophy towards public finance so Hongkongers could share fruits of economic development

Small-house policy

John Tsang: address the small-house issues flexibly by examining the feasibility of building multi-storey blocks or estates with mixed small houses and home ownership flats

Regina Ip: begin negotiations with rural power brokers the Heung Yee Kuk to achieve a win-win solution

Woo Kwok-hing: relax three-storey limit so villagers could build “a few more storeys”

Carrie Lam: declined comment, citing ongoing judicial review against the policy.