Scandal-hit Paul Chan gets a shot at redemption, and even glory, with first budget for Hong Kong
Alice Wu says the budget gives the former development chief an opportunity to both cement his allegiance to the current administration and showcase a more sensible fiscal vision than that of veteran ‘Scrooge’ John Tsang
With Hong Kong’s longest-serving financial secretary seeking to be the next chief executive, seeing a new face hand out sweeteners in the budget on Wednesday may just be refreshing. Given that Paul Chan Mo-po is going into his maiden budget with a fairly dismal rating of 34 – from the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme – maybe he will use his short stint to redeem his controversial tenure in government, or as a way to extend his tenure if he manages to convince chief executive hopefuls.
With chief executive contenders talking about the use of the public purse in their bids to win hearts and minds, how will Chan position himself? As a strong supporter of the current chief executive, who has made his preference known through praise for Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor and telling silence for John Tsang Chun-wah, Chan will definitely be standing by his man, and the woman he backs.
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Lam and Tsang are both from the current administration. Both have floated their thoughts on “new” measures when it comes to fiscal policy. While Lam has been more combative, going as far as to say that the financial secretary has too much power, unchecked by the chief executive, she has left Chan in a rather difficult spot. Will Chan do a complete 180-degree turn from Tsang so as to prove Lam correct?
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But Lam’s knocking of Tsang was also a knocking of the outgoing chief executive. Lam basically said she would not take “no” as an answer from her finance chief, and it was as much a veiled attack on Leung Chun-ying as on Tsang.
How can Chan prove himself obedient enough and yet avoid politically “implicating” his boss for not being able to subordinate Tsang at the same time?
Perhaps it’s not just the chief executive’s hands that are tied. The financial secretary has constraints as well. Tsang has been taking the heat for gross and consistent misestimates of the budget surplus for years, which have become the main reason for not supporting his bid to be chief executive. But I am quite sure financial secretaries do not actually crunch numbers at their desks. Chances are that Chan has already been given and, come Wednesday, will be giving, figures that are wide of the mark.
And going by Lam’s partial election platform, Chan also has the difficult task of defending a government that has been accused of not investing enough in the people. Chan has already tried to do that by stressing that the government had done a lot in putting money towards improving people’s livelihoods, with some 60 per cent of expenditure going into education, medical services and social welfare.
If Chan, formerly development secretary, wants to be remembered for more than just the subdivided flats and land scandals that have overshadowed his political career, the budget will be his last chance. He needs to show that he is different from Tsang, who has been portrayed as the ultimate Scrooge. If Chan can articulate a fiscal philosophy that is different and more sensible, then he may be able to score points for the current administration, and for himself.
There is not a lot that can happen in a government whose days are numbered, but Chan can use the low expectations to his advantage. And for those tired of watching a “pre-determined” chief executive race, the budget can serve as a sort of respite.
The electioneering has become really lame: we have two career civil servants competing on claims of offering “new” styles of governance and “new” policies, when they have themselves held key government posts for so long, and squandered decades of opportunities to use their “new” ways to resolve Hong Kong’s many problems.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA