Beijing will trust me with Hong Kong’s top job, John Tsang says

Underdog in leadership race rejects speculation central government would refuse to appoint him should he win, stressing his record as finance chief

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2017, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 9:21am

The contender who enjoys the biggest mass appeal in Hong Kong’s leadership race is confident of Beijing’s trust – even though he is not considered its preferred choice – and has rejected suggestions he will not be appointed if he wins the election next month.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Post on Thursday, former finance minister John Tsang Chun-wah said the cabinet job he held for more than nine years and the role of chief executive he is now aiming for “entailed the same level of trust” from Beijing.

And he stressed the implied significance of his handshakes with President Xi Jinping in the past two years, interpreting them as a “very strong sign of encouragement” to join the race.

“It gives me a sense of recognition. For a busy person like the president, recognising somebody, I think, is a big deal,” Tsang, 65, said.

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On the trust he said he enjoyed, he added: “I think it would be inconceivable if I didn’t have the confidence of the central government while I was able to take on all those different jobs for such a long time.

“Since 1999, when I became a principal official, I have maintained a good relationship with all my counterparts in Beijing and the relationship has been cordial and constructive. I believe that it would continue to be so.

“As financial secretary, I was responsible for the Exchange Fund of HK$3 trillion. It needs a lot of trust to put that kind of faith in somebody.”

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Recovering from a bout of flu, Tsang was candid when it came to all things personal but cautious when it came to the political, refusing to be drawn into criticising his election rivals, except for a veiled reference to front runner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who lags behind him in terms of public appeal but has the advantage of being backed by pro-Beijing forces dominating the Election Committee that will pick the city’s next leader.

Tsang suggested that a candidate who wins the race without the support of the wider public might end up “not being able to govern”.

He also talked about his “delegate and trust your staff” leadership style and his relationship with the business sector and pan-democrats, and played down tensions within the current administration while professing his love for comic book superheroes and cracking jokes.

He has yet to secure the 150 nominations he needs from the 1,194-member Election Committee to qualify for the election on March 26. He is also seen as the underdog to Lam amid speculation he might not be appointed by Beijing even if he were to win.

Lam has been quoted as saying in a private meeting she decided to join the race to avoid the possibility of Beijing eventually rejecting a winning candidate, which, she said, would plunge the city into a “constitutional crisis”.

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A government source earlier revealed that Wang Guangya, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and Zhang Xiaoming, head of Beijing’s liaison office in the city, had tried to dissuade Tsang from running, warning him at separate meetings late last year that the central government would not appoint him if he won.

Tsang declined to comment on such a scenario. Asked if he was worried about being rejected, he said: “I’m working very hard at this stage to secure the votes in Hong Kong and there is no reason for me to believe that would happen.”

But he noted Beijing did have “substantive” power to appoint the chief executive under the Basic Law.

He added he had not thought about other career options should he lose the race.

In a boost for Tsang’s campaign on Thursday, the Democratic Party decided its seven legislators would nominate the former finance chief en bloc, citing his popularity in the four-horse race.

Additional reporting by Gary Cheung