John Tsang quit finance minister job after row with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying over budget

Candidate in coming leadership race was ‘unhappy’ at work but did not decide to run for top post until after resigning

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 3:57am

The popular underdog in Hong Kong’s leadership election, John Tsang Chun-wah, quit his job as finance minister three months ago because of a row with outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying over how much the government should spend, the Post has learned.

In a new twist as the three-horse race enters the final three weeks to polling day on March 26, Tsang finally opened up a little more about his rift with his former boss.

Tsang had saidon Thursday that he quit not because he wanted to run for chief executive but because he was unhappy, without giving details. He maintained that he made up his mind to run for the top post only after he left his job, according to a Chinese-language newspaper.

Prodded for more details at his weekly media briefing yesterday, Tsang said: “Everything has its ups and downs. It’s a decision made over time.”

According to a source from Tsang’s camp, the former finance chief decided to quit after Leung insisted he should multiply the amount of new money he had budgeted for the next few years, which would result in a deficit.

Tsang resigned in mid-December and, upon Beijing’s confirmation of his resignation, announced his candidacy in January. His replacement as finance chief, Paul Chan Mo-po, unveiled the budget in February.

According to the spending plans that Chan outlined, an annual deficit will surface in the capital account from 2018-19, because of commitments to many infrastructure projects. There will also be a deficit of HK$8.5 billion in the overall consolidated account in 2020-21 and 2021–22, he predicted. Chan admitted “sustainability” is an issue.

Tsang’s brainchild, the Future Fund, set up in 2015 for a rainy day, was undone by Chan as he decided not to inject a part of the annual surplus into it. Instead, he spent it on welfare and sports.

Like Chan, the front runner contesting the top job, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has advocated a “new philosophy” for public finance, which would involve spending the huge government reserves on facilitating business development and improving livelihoods.

Lam enjoyed a better relationship with the chief executive when she was the No 2 official.

To further highlight his disagreement with Leung, Tsang yesterday attended the sports day at his alma mater, La Salle College, at Wan Chai Sports Ground. Tsang disagreed with Leung that the venue should be demolished to develop convention and exhibition facilities.

He said the facility was “very important to Hong Kong’s sports sector” and must be kept intact.

At the weekly briefing, Tsang also mentioned that his crowdfunding campaign had raised HK$5 million – a third of the maximum allowed campaign expense – from 25,000 contributors.

In a move to win Beijing’s trust, Tsang pledged to maintain national interests and the “one country, two systems” policy for Hong Kong; to continue lobbying support from across political spectrum; and to gain the trust of young people and help with their development.

Hong Kong chief executive candidates Carrie Lam and John Tsang clash over spectrum of political support

He also upped the ante of his public outreach campaign. Enjoying higher popularity than Lam or the third candidate, former High Court judge Woo Kwok-hing, Tsang’s campaign has organised a citywide display of his campaign slogans.

Meanwhile Lam, the candidate seen as Beijing’s preferred choice, angered grassroots protesters yesterday when she walked away and left a forum through a back door instead of accepting their petition as promised.

During the event with social workers, she was also criticised for her past policies, especially since it was the sector she worked closely with when she was social services director and chief secretary. But her pledge to plan for a children’s commission received praise.

The welfare sector in the Election Committee that will pick the next chief executive did not give Lam any nominations in the qualifying stage as it comprised only pan-democrats, who supported either Tsang or Woo.

Will popular John Tsang even get nominated for Hong Kong’s leadership race?

“I’m so disappointed with her,” said Law Pui-shan of the Hong Kong Catholic Commission for Labour Affairs. “It is the most basic thing for someone running for top office to meet protesters and hear their voices. She ought to connect to society.”

Lam said she had avoided the protesters out of “security concerns”. “Accepting a letter is just a trivial matter,” she said.

A woman who asked a question at the forum called Lam a “liar”.

“She told the audience she wasn’t late when we waited for her for an hour,” the woman said. “And she said receiving letters or not was only a trivial matter. This is so insulting to us, the grassroots.”

During the forum, Lam refused to commit to cancelling the lump sum grant arrangement for social workers’ employers, which is instead of annual payments. Unionists criticise the payment as failing to address pay rise needs for experienced staff. Lam agreed to look into ways to improve it.

Although Lam has bagged nearly half of the entry tickets supplied by the 1,194-member Election Committee, Tsang’s team remained optimistic that some of her supporters would turn to him under secret ballot, giving him the minimum 601 votes needed for a victory.

Victor Li Tzar-kuoi, deputy chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings and son of Hong Kong’s richest man Li Ka-shing, said he would vote for Lam, whom he nominated. But Margaret Leung Ko May-yee, Chong Hing Bank deputy chairwoman, who nominated Lam, said she would compare all the candidates’ platforms before deciding whom to vote for.

The 300-plus pan-democrats in the committee will meet today to discuss their voting strategy, with the focus expected to be on whether to vote Tsang or Woo.