My Take

Why John Tsang would be a worse leader than CY Leung

Hong Kong’s finance chief has consistently been wrong on budget forecasts, missing the chance to introduce policies that could lead to a better future

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2016, 10:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 May, 2016, 11:13am

Our financial secretary is one of a handful of public figures being floated as a potential chief executive candidate. There is no doubt that John Tsang Chun-wah has consistently been among the least unpopular top officials within the Leung Chun-ying administration.

Yet I believe Tsang would be far worse than Leung as chief executive. People may hate Leung for his style and personality. But Tsang is part of the governing elite whose policies have contributed directly, over many years, to the social malaise and unrest that plague Hong Kong today.

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Just to be fair, let us confine ourselves to financial matters only.

Since he took office in 2007, Tsang has cried wolf repeatedly about government deficits. Not once did his prediction pan out. Often, the government ended up with an embarrassment of riches. According to a Legislative Council study, he underestimated revenue by a total of HK$582 billion up to 2014.

A better forecast would have – could have – meant better planning and social investments for Hong Kong people. But once you make everyone fret about deficits, you shut them up for trying to suggest improvements and discredit those who do try as irresponsible.

Tsang was forced to give away HK$220 billion as sweeteners up to 2014. Its stimulus effect to the economy was negligible. Most of the money ended up in the hands of property owners – large and small – and taxpayers. Disadvantaged groups received minimal benefits.

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In the story, the boy who cried wolf was right at the end. Tsang has gone on to predicting long-term “structural” deficits. He will eventually be proved right – but when? Without an accurate and actionable time horizon, such predictions are worthless as far as policy planning is concerned. All it means is we must save, we cannot spend.

Meanwhile, why does the government continue to ring-fence land sales revenue, which makes up more than 15 per cent of annual revenue, from being used for any purpose other than building infrastructure? Controversial infrastructure projects have contributed to rising social tensions. Could some of the money not be better used on recurrent-spending programmes like education, health care or retirement?

Tsang likes to say he is thinking about the future. He is really neglecting the present for a future about which he has little idea.