Front runners in Hong Kong leadership race dodge June 4 issue in bruising debate

Carrie Lam and John Tsang mix sarcasm, humour and outright attack as they trade blows one week ahead of vote

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 March, 2017, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 March, 2017, 9:31am

The two front runners in Hong Kong’s leadership race shied away from stating their positions over vindication of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 as they were publicly grilled for the first time by members of the committee that will pick the city’s chief executive next Sunday.

Sunday night’s 2½ hour election debate saw testy exchanges between Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and John Tsang Chun-wah: Lam mocked Tsang for his “laid-back” working style, while the latter put her in the category of “politicians who think saying is achieving”.

The showdown at the AsiaWorld-Expo on Lantau Island between the two front runners and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing was organised by a group of Election Committee members from across the political spectrum.

Asked about Beijing’s crackdown on the student-led pro-democracy movement, which remains a highly contentious subject in the city, Tsang gave a meandering answer, saying “some time in the future we can see the issue being dealt with [by Beijing]”.

Lam said the incident was “saddening”, adding: “History will have its judgment.”

Lam, the former No 2 official seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate, appeared to be restrained and respectful at first, but returned to the combative style she displayed in previous debates when she was asked to rate Tsang’s performance when they were both serving in the government.

When I went to John’s office for a meeting, I saw that there was no file, no paper on his desk
Carrie Lam takes a dig at her rival

Lam, also a former development minister, was dripping sarcasm as she recalled a meeting with Tsang when he was the financial secretary: “When I went to John’s office for a meeting, I saw that there was no file, no paper on his desk. I admired him much. My desk was always full of files and documents.”

Tsang retorted: “I always believe that, apart from working hard, we need to work smart. If she can take up all the tasks, she’s a good employee, not a leader.”

When it came to the issue of Hong Kong’s stalled political reform process, Lam reiterated that she had been sincere in resolving the deadlock during the Occupy protests of 2014.

Carrie Lam faces social media backlash after final debate

That was Woo’s chance to pounce: “Lam was the head of the government’s task force on political reform but she failed the exercise and that led to the Occupy protests. Restarting the process is not even in her manifesto.”

“Some politicians would think saying is achieving,” Tsang added, referring to Lam’s undelivered promise to set up a multi-side platform for society to discuss democratic development.

Tsang, the popular underdog next to Lam, resorted to humour when taking a question from the floor about Lam’s refusal to travel to Tin Shui Wai to meet grassroots families because it was too far away. “Actually it wasn’t that far away, just some 30 minutes by car from Wan Chai,” he said.

Lam said, “I am sorry that I could not go to Tin Shui Wai ... But I have proposals for the lower class.”

Tsang was forced to back down on the controversy over his perceived sympathy for those who launched personal attacks against actress Josephine Siao for supporting Lam.

“Such cyberbullying is not acceptable. We have to respect others and we have to respect ourselves [when expressing views],” Tsang conceded.

Lam avoided repeating the gaffes that raised eyebrows in the last election debate, such as her offer to resign “if mainstream opinion makes me no longer able to continue” as chief executive.

The debate got off to a noisy start with a partisan audience. As Woo was about to make his opening remarks, four pro-democracy activists marched to the front of the stage, chanting,“We want genuine universal suffrage” and waving placards that read “Support civil nomination” and “We want universal pension”. They were quickly ushered away.

Some 507 of the 1,194 election committee members attended the forum. Among them, 189 members filed questions. Most of the 21 questions selected were from pan-democrats.

The second part of the debate featured questions from the public. Organisers said they had received 1,326 questions from public.

Too tough or amicable team player? All eyes on Lam and Tsang as Hong Kong civil servants consider their future boss

Tsang’s performance won a clear lead of support over Lam, according to a poll.

Some 62 per cent of 717 respondents told HKU’s public opinion programme that, if eligible to vote, they would vote for Tsang tomorrow after watching the debate, against 24 per cent for Lam.

In her closing remarks, Lam said: “Carrie Lam today is still Carrie Lam of yesterday. The difference is that she is now more humble.”

And she said: “If I am elected, I will achieve the vision of the old and the young. Please vote for me next Sunday.”

Tsang said: “Five years on, the rift in the society has deepened, the government is not supported by the people, and governance is difficult.”

“Hongkongers want to see a bit of change. They yearn for a change in the social atmosphere, which they won’t feel tiring or even suffocating,” he added.

Woo continued his attack on Lam in his final remarks, he said fake consultation had been Lam’s strength.

And he criticised Tsang and Lam for passing the buck on this issue.

“HK’s problem is not that it doesn’t have money, but that the person in charge does not have a heart,” he said.

Ng Kang-chung, Tony Cheung, Phila Siu, Joyce Ng, Stuart Lau, Jeffie Lam, Kimmy Chung and Shirley Zhao

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE DEBATE

On the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square

Lam: The June 4 incident is saddening. I believe history will have its judgment.

Tsang: I still have strong feelings towards June 4. I think Beijing has some views on it, and it will be handled in the future.

On Lam’s failure, put down to fatigue, to meet Tin Shui Wai residents on Saturday

Lam: I am sorry I could not go to Tin Shui Wai, but ... I have proposals for the lower class.

Tsang: Actually it wasn’t that far away. It’s just half an hour away from Wan Chai.

Woo: Lam’s always heavily guarded wherever she goes. If she went, there may be Occupy.

On Lam’s ability to unite the city

Woo: She [says] in her manifesto she will wait for a favourable environment for restarting [political] reform … Of course, if she [does] the whole of Hong Kong will be occupied this time.

Tsang: In many areas she’s very similar to CY. If she continues CY’s path I’m worried society will be increasingly polarised ... She turned the Palace Museum from a good thing to a bad thing.

Asked to compliment each other

Lam: John used to be my boss … I saw that there was no file, no paper on his desk. I admired him much. My desk was always full of files and documents.

Tsang: I always believe, apart from working hard, we need to be smart. If she can take up all the tasks, she’s a good employee, not a leader.

On the ICAC’s probe of Leung Chun-ying

Lam: It’s illegal for the next CE to explain ongoing investigations.

Woo: Lam plays words again for not explaining what she’ll do.

Tsang: Any illegal acts, committed by anyone, won’t be let go.

On plans for broadcaster RTHK

Tsang: I’ll turn RTHK into the second BBC if elected.

Lam: I’ve been misunderstood. I care about RTHK’s future.

Woo: RTHK works for the ­people, not the government.

On public popularity

Lam: No matter how many malicious attacks I have faced, it won’t sway my beliefs.

Woo: Instead of vowing to ­listen carefully, Lam should be speaking carefully.

Tsang: [If Lam’s elected] it’s unprecedented for a winner to enjoy negative popularity rating ... History tells us the 689 who elected an articulate person [Leung] to CE had their hopes crashed.