John Tsang wins Hong Kong leadership battle ... at least on Facebook

Former financial secretary’s savvy use of social media leaves arch-rival Carrie Lam looking flat-footed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 5:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2017, 6:52pm

Less than two weeks before election day, chief executive candidate John Tsang Chun-wah took to his Facebook page to “agree” with his critics.

“An opportunist. Someone who does not have his own views and is unreliable. Someone who always agrees with his boss. That’s John Tsang Chun-wah,” the former financial secretary said in a video posted on March 14.

That post has drawn 24,000 “likes”, more than 1,000 comments and was shared 2,600 times. It was a social media sensation his rival Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor could only dream about.

Tsang was in fact turning the tables on his critics, reading out negative comments made about him on social media, a tactic reminiscent of the popular American show Jimmy Kimmel Live, where celebrities are invited to read mean tweets targeting them.

In response to the comment, left by “Peter”, Tsang said: “Peter, my boss is actually you. The 7.3 million people in Hong Kong are my bosses.”

That post showed how far the election underdog was willing to go to win the hearts of the people. Analysts said Tsang’s campaign team had identified his strength – his popularity – and successfully sold it to the public through social media. By contrast, Lam’s team had failed to identify her edge and give a much-needed theme to her Facebook page.

John Tsang might know finance - but Carrie Lam’s loyalty makes her Beijing’s favourite to lead Hong Kong, says analyst

Lam, formerly the city’s No 2 official, even ignited a public relations crisis after a video of her visiting elderly people in Sham Shui Po with the University of Hong Kong’s Emeritus Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sang was posted on her Facebook page on Thursday. Critics accused her of manipulating Chow.

Chow clarified later that his appearance with Lam did not mean he supported her run. The two were in fact at odds in the past when the government asked Chow to conduct a study on retirement protection and then dismissed his idea for a universal pension.

If you only get very few ‘likes’, it means that people don’t even care about you
Professor Francis Lee Lap-fung, Chinese University

So far, Tsang’s Facebook page has 250,000 “likes”, while Lam’s has only 36,000. The page of the third candidate, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, has 53,000 “likes”. Lam’s page does not even have an English name – it is just “Lam Cheng’s office” in Chinese.

“It’s just very obvious who has the better social media strategy,” Professor Francis Lee Lap-fung, of Chinese University’s school of journalism and communication, said. “It is worth noting that liking someone’s Facebook page does not necessarily mean that you actually like or support that person.

“But it means that you want to know more about the person and want to see more posts. But if you only get very few ‘likes’, it means that people don’t even care about you.”

The academic said there was “nothing much to see” in Lam’s Facebook page.

According to analysis by the WiseNews electronic data base, 57.8 per cent of internet comments about Tsang were supportive, with only 10.7 per cent against him. As for comments on front runner Lam, 83.4 per cent were against her. Wisenews has a system that studies comments left on the Facebook pages of 76 news media and determine if they are supportive or not.

The two candidates share similarities in their social media strategies. They have both made use of their Facebook pages to post videos of supporters giving them words of encouragement. They also regularly post pictures and videos of meetings with different groups.

But Lam’s page does not go far beyond that.

By comparison, Tsang has made use of his page to poke fun at Lam, reject her criticism of him with use of animation, and engage with ordinary Hong Kong people by replying to their letters.

“Recently, a very smart friend whom I admired said that [he or she] wanted to call and connect me because I always call people up and connect with them,” Tsang said in one video. This was seen as a jab at Lam’s election slogan “We Connect”.

In that video, he went on to have a light-hearted chat with DJ and pop singer Jan Lam Hoi-fung over the phone.

One week before election day on March 26, Tsang went further by using animation to answer claims by Lam that while he was financial secretary he had cut funding for various departments despite the city recording strong fiscal reserves.

Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of the Information Technology Federation, said: “The theme of a Facebook page is very important. You’re selling a person in the page.

“People used to say that John Tsang does not talk very well. But it turns out that he actually speaks quite well. His team has successfully sold his strength on social media, and that’s his high popularity.”

Fong said Lam’s campaign team failed to give her an image and had not realised that running a Facebook page is like running a convenience store – people expect frequent updates.

At one point during the campaign there were no posts on Lam’s page for four days.

But even though analysts said Tsang had run a more successful social media campaign, the choice of chief executive will be made by the 1,194 members of the Election Committee, most of whom are pro-establishment figures likely to vote for Beijing’s favoured candidate – Lam.

Lee, from Chinese University, said: “A social media campaign can affect a person’s popularity, which can then affect the result of a election. However, the election in Hong Kong is not a democratic one.”

Highlights of John Tsang’s social media strategy

About 250,000 “likes” on his Facebook page.

Support video from popular DJ Sammy Leung Chi-kin, with teaser post to create anticipation.

Over HK$2 million raised on the first day of his crowdfunding drive.

Wife Tsang Wong Lynn-wah’s frequent appearances on his Facebook page, including a photo album and a video on their “love at first sight” relationship.

Response to critics on Facebook, and replies to people who have written letters.

Use of animation to reject accusations by arch-rival Lam.

Carrie Lam’s highlights

About 36,000 “likes” on her Facebook page.

Valentine’s Day letter from husband Lam Siu-por posted on her Facebook page. The mathematician said he had not been keen on her running but had set aside his “selfishness” after seeing people from all walks of life support her.

Posting pictures of herself with family and friends, giving the public a rare insight into her past.

Regular videos of her visiting places where holding fond memories, such as the old government headquarters in Central.

Woo Kwok-hing’s highlights

About 53,000 “likes” on his Facebook page.

Photos of people holding placards saying “I would vote for No 3 candidate Woo Kwok-hing if I had a vote”.

Made use of his retired judge image to call Lam a “dishonest witness”, drawing 10,000 “likes”.

Behind-the-scene shots on Facebook, such as a picture of him talking busily on the phone outside a market.