City Beat

Donald Tsang’s admission shows why Hong Kong’s housing supply remains a key issue for the next leader

The former chief executive says he should have developed more land – but, as his successor Leung Chun-ying found out, finding a solution to this complex issue is far from easy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 4:13pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2016, 9:50pm

The talk of the town over the past week was the surprising, yet not so unexpected, result of the Legislative Council elections, and the implications for Hong Kong’s future. But former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen also raised eyebrows by giving an exclusive interview to one of the city’s free newspapers, AM 730.

It was Tsang’s first one-on-one media session since he retired from top office four years ago. He has kept a conspicuously low profile since the city’s anti-graft agency started to investigate allegations about favours he was said to have accepted from his tycoon friends, which eventually landed him in court facing two charges of misconduct in public office.

The timing of the interview has naturally triggered plenty of speculation as it was published days after the Legco vote, and just ahead of another hearing next month. The actual trial is set to open next January.

Understandably, with the court battle looming, Tsang sees the need to set the record straight on his four decades in public service, including seven years as the city’s leader. In this regard, his admission in the interview that “I could have done better” in developing more land for housing was the most eye-catching part. It serves as a timely reminder to whoever wants the top job of the importance of this pressing issue.

One of Tsang’s most criticised policies was the halting of subsidised housing construction and suspension of government land auctions, plus his failure to ensure land supply. His successor, Leung Chun-ying, subsequently turned that policy around and criticised Tsang’s administration for not doing enough to provide affordable housing.

But four years later, Leung’s administration also has to admit that land supply remains the biggest headache in solving the housing issue.

It’s an open secret that Leung and Tsang did not see eye to eye on many issues. Now the time has come for the city to pick a new leader again, and Tsang’s interview is definitely a wake-up call for potential candidates that housing remains a critical problem for the next government, apart from sensitive political issues such as the spreading of pro-independence ideas.

And reading between the lines, one little detail of Tsang’s interview caught the eye of some political critics. Admitting the difficulties in looking for land, Tsang said: “You go ask Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor [then development bureau chief], it was just difficult.” He warned that opposition from environmentalists and assorted interests groups would make it even harder for the government to do anything.

The death threats against newly elected lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick speak volumes of the complexity of land interests

To be fair to Tsang, though he may have to shoulder most of the responsibility for wrong judgment calls in the past, there were other factors that contributed to soaring property prices. However, by suggesting that even chief secretary Lam, whom he once praised as “the most capable [official]”, could not do much in terms of looking for land, and then praising Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah as a man whose “heart is with Hong Kong”, the interview seemed to serve two purposes: to defend himself and to endorse his old friend for next year’s chief executive election.

As for John Tsang, after attending the G20 summit in Hangzhou, where he shook hands and had a brief chat with President Xi Jinping, he posted online a photo of himself with Liu He, Xi’s top economic adviser. The two once studied together at the Harvard Kennedy School in the 1990s. It’s been widely seen as John Tsang’s subtle message that he has certain connections with President Xi’s core team.

Now that it looks like John Tsang is keen on running for the top job, he would do well to reflect on a key question, besides all the other political uncertainties: since developing land can spark conflict with many interest groups, how can he do a better job than others in solving Hong Kong’s housing problem?

The death threats against newly elected lawmaker Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, founder of the Land Justice League, speak volumes of the complexity of land interests.

Our finance minister’s good friend Donald Tsang’s reflection can be a useful reference.