March has been a month of major malaise for Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah. First there was the firestorm over his initial budget, followed by an overnight U-turn. Then, the zigzags over a handout for new immigrants initially excluded from the HK$6,000 largesse. Finally, adding official insult to injury, the Central Policy Unit commissioned a survey to gauge people's mood on whether Tsang should keep his job.
It is now clear that we are witnessing the throes of a twilight government. Many are baying for blood - Tsang's blood. But it would not be in our best interests to make him pay the ultimate professional price. Accountability doesn't mean that every time an appointed official stumbles, he must be pushed. After all, he did listen and made quick amends for misreading the public mood. We at the New People's Party, for one, are glad that he accepted our proposal to put the money directly into the pockets of the people, instead of parking it with MPF managers for years. We would have liked it better if he had acceded to our request to set up a matching fund to encourage those who can spare the cash to give it to those who won't get anything from the government. But why kick a man when he is already down?
His departure would do great harm to civil service morale, already at a low under a government that is sinking lower by the day. And, if Tsang were to go, who would we put in his hot seat? Who would want a job that will end in just over 400 days? Tsang's departure would mean a period of economic uncertainty.
But the biggest reason is that the real culprit is not John Tsang, but his boss, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. We must remember that the financial secretary has little say over the policies or priorities of other bureaus. Besides, the pattern of other officials' behaviour is clear: in the four policy announcements derailed over the past few months, the shepherding officials all tried to hang tough initially, with some refusing to budge an inch. There was the tough talk of Environment Secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah over the new dump site, and that of Labour and Welfare Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung over the transport subsidy for low-income workers. John Tsang practically parroted the same uncompromising language.
The similarity of their initial posturing led me to suspect that their pig-headed stance bore the fingerprints of their boss, a man of bureaucratic obstinacy, who does not yield until his job is threatened. Interestingly, John Tsang made the abrupt U-turn just a couple of days before the chief executive was due to report to Beijing. It would have made our leader look bad up north if thousands had taken to the streets in protest, as the pan-democrats had threatened. The cave-in looks suspiciously like having been decreed by a man who wanted to save his own skin. John Tsang, the fall guy, was simply left to twist in the wind. During the financial secretary's days of agony, the chief executive remained self-protectively out of sight, never uttering a word in defence of his trusted lieutenant.
The financial secretary and this government may survive the budget crisis. But it doesn't mean that our sustained prosperity will. In his closing remarks to Hong Kong delegates, Premier Wen Jiabao pointedly reminded the Hong Kong government that it must have a strategic vision for the city's long-term interests, and that it has the chance to play a role in the nation's planned technological advancement.
If the financial secretary, and other appointed officials, take Wen's words to heart, there is still time: great leaders have the uncanny ability to turn a crisis into an opportunity. A great opportunity beckons in the shape of the 12th five-year plan: the chance to stay ahead of the curve and diversify economically through investment in technology. An over-reliance on finance and property is unhealthy, costly and risky.
The financial secretary has taken the right first step in upgrading the status of the Steering Committee on Innovation and Technology which, since its establishment in 2004, has always been chaired by the secretary for industry and technology. This year, it will be chaired by the financial secretary himself, a good sign that the government is getting serious about promoting innovative technologies.
John Tsang can create a fine legacy if he focuses on Hong Kong's future, doing his utmost to support research and innovation, prodding our economic transformation through diversification. That way, no one will remember the hiccup over the controversial handout.
Politicians may cynically call this a late penance. But, for the frustrated people of Hong Kong, it would spell true vision and leadership.
Michael Tien Puk-sun is a Hong Kong deputy of the National People's Congress and vice-chairman of the New People's Party