If John Tsang is angling for Hong Kong’s top job, his budget was right on the money
Alice Wu says the financial secretary’s widely praised budget speech – no mean feat, given the divisive political mood in Hong Kong – is short on vision and ideas, but long on political acumen
Assuming, for argument’s sake, that John Tsang Chun-wah does aspire to be Hong Kong’s next chief executive, he must be applauded for striking the right tone in last week’s budget. It was, no doubt, carefully drafted. When describing what happened three weeks ago in Mong Kok, he managed to use both “incident” and “riot”. He condemned the violence and said it was “the result of a raft of intricately related factors”.
Tsang performed his political high-wire act superbly. Not only did he put money into boosting the local film industry, he also put in a few good words for Cantonese. At the same time, he distanced himself from the so-called “localists” who have targeted mainland tourists in their protests, condemning their actions as “in fact, not the kind of behaviour that reflects love for Hong Kong”.
The budget also offered plenty of emotional hooks. There was the favourite topic of “Hong Kong’s core values”, followed by the ultimate feel-good “hook”: “We, the Hong Kong people, are proud of our ability to persevere through these turbulent years”. Soliciting feel-good emotions while establishing a connection with the public is playing perfectly the politics of emotion and identity. Casting a wide net, he has managed to earn rare praise from pan-democrats, including radicals.
That feat in itself is extraordinary, since pan-democrats may be more stingy with praise than Tsang is with the city’s fiscal reserves. They praised him because his budget was “much more Hongkonger-oriented”, compared with his boss’s policy address. Wu Chi-wai, of the Democratic Party, saw the budget as proof that “Tsang is breathing the same air as we”. If Tsang is indeed eyeing the top job, he looks to be playing all his cards right.
Notice also that Tsang’s sweeteners have shifted towards middle-income earners, who are considered to be the demographic most critical of his previous budgets. Think back to 2013 when he was ridiculed for proclaiming his middle-class socio-economic status as a coffee drinker and fan of French movies. This shift is a clear move, on Tsang’s part, to set things right with the middle class.
Tsang may not have drummed up excitement over the “new economic order” highlighted in his budget, but he has created quite a bit of excitement over some sort of potential “new political order”. James Tien Pei-chun, of the Liberal Party, is quite right in saying that Tsang’s concluding remarks resembled a campaign speech.
READ MORE: Budget outline or campaign speech? Overcome feelings of suffocation and helplessness amid conflict, urges Hong Kong finance chief
Present was the sense of urgency and crisis – “tension and turbulence are mounting in Hong Kong”, “confrontations have not eased and, worse still, our society has become even more polarised”. If the situation got worse, he warned, “what lies in store for Hong Kong will be even greater chaos and our future generations will grow up in the midst of hatred and malice”. And then there was the message of hope – Hongkongers have the “ability and the wisdom” to cope with the problems. “With our love for Hong Kong, we [will be] able to overcome any challenge ahead of us, no matter how difficult it is,” he exhorted.
Tsang’s budget has no vision or any actual ideas to get us through the economic turbulence. But he has made up for this by putting his political skills on full display – for Hongkongers and for Beijing. From the eyebrow-raising handshake with President Xi Jinping (習近平) at last summer’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank meeting to his latest budget, Tsang – inadvertently or not – has been boosting his political chances. If he is indeed eyeing this city’s top job, let’s hope he knows he needs to offer more than just sweet-talking.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA