Donald Tsang
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Grim day of kung fu and bandits

Donald Tsang

It was not a good day for Donald Tsang yesterday. The Financial Secretary already looked grim as he arrived for the debate on a motion opposing his much-touted plans for a land departure tax.

His expression grew progressively grimmer as one legislator after another savaged the idea. Chan Wing-chan compared it to the bandits who rob travellers in kung fu novels. Others claimed it might violate the one country, two systems concept.

At first Mr Tsang clasped his hands together as if praying for his opponents to see sense. But as the criticism mounted he seemed to lose faith in an appeal to higher authority. Instead, Mr Tsang closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands in an apparent gesture of despair.

Attempts to escape the attacks only made things worse. When Mr Tsang left the chamber for a few minutes, Chan Yuen-han of the normally supportive Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong immediately accused him of not wanting to hear the results of yet another opinion survey opposing the departure tax.

With district council polls looming, most wanted nothing to do with such a politically unappealing measure. It was left to the Liberal Party to display the rare spectacle of a principled stand.

Chairman James Tien pointed out all taxes are unpopular. Selina Chow complained some legislators were exploiting the issue for electoral advantage.

Together with a handful of independents, they argued it would be wrong to reject the idea before officials even explained how it would work.

Accountant Eric Li reminded his colleagues how it is sometimes said that paying taxes is the price of being a civilised man. Insurance representative Bernard Chan said it was only natural for the Government to explore new sources of revenue.

But while opponents were savage in their criticism, such supporters offered only qualified backing. Most said simply that they were reserving their position for a later date. Even the Liberal Party qualified its principles by abstaining.

In the end the Government only avoided total defeat because of the split voting system used in Legco. This meant the motion condemning the departure tax was not passed even though most legislators supported it.

But at least that left Mr Tsang free to pray for more support next time round.