Is it morally right for John Tsang to contest the Hong Kong chief executive election?

John Chan says the former financial secretary’s explanation of why he resigned is hard to believe, given that he appears to have been eyeing the top post for years

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 March, 2017, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 March, 2017, 7:14pm

John Tsang Chun-wah has said he resigned as financial secretary not to run for chief executive, “but because of many other things”. “Unhappiness at work was one of the reasons. It was not a sudden decision.” He also said he only made up his mind to run after he had left.

Most would find that hard to believe. Judging from Tsang’s high-profile preparation over the past two years, and the fact that he never denied suggestions that he intended to run, it is inconceivable that he should say he resigned in December not to run for the top post but for some other reason.

John Tsang quit finance minister job after row with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying over budget

Consideration of political morality explains why Tsang may have presented his case as an unbelievable sudden decision. He knows it would be deemed politically unethical and immoral if he should admit to preparing to run for two years, or even from just before Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying unexpectedly announced he would not seek a second term.

Former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, in stark contrast to Tsang’s wishy-washy stance, had always clearly asserted that she would not run. Her firm denials changed only after Leung said he would not seek a second term. Lam was clear on the point that it would be politically immoral for a serving cabinet member to contest the top post with the incumbent also running.

Watch: Carrie Lam announces candidacy for chief executive

In the US, the last time a former cabinet secretary became a major party’s choice for president was in 1928, when commerce secretary Herbert Hoover won the Republican nomination and went on to become the 31st US president. However, he ran only after sitting president Calvin Coolidge said he would not.

Almost all local media said Tsang had been making preparations to run for the top post for more than two years

It is political ethics that stops a US cabinet secretary running against a president seeking re-election. This is unlike a cabinet minister under the parliamentary system in the UK or Commonwealth nations, where ministers are elected members of the ruling party or coalition. Cabinet ministers and other ruling party MPs choose their party leader, who becomes the prime minister. They also have the power to depose and replace the incumbent.

Hong Kong’s cabinet of bureau secretaries nominated by the chief executive is similar to the US system. If a financial secretary wishes to run against his chief executive who is bidding for a second term, he must resign as soon as he manifests such an intention – failing to do so would be politically immoral.

Watch: ‘You always agree with your boss’

Tsang was quoted as saying, when questioned on his obvious rift with Leung during the Wang Chau development saga, that: “You always agree with your boss. No question about that.” An explanatory extension could be: “If you do not agree with your boss, you’ve got to leave. No question about that.” More so if he harboured an intention to run against Leung.

John Tsang gives another hint that he may run for Hong Kong’s chief executive

Almost all local media and most commentators said Tsang had been making preparations to run for the top post for more than two years: Tsang himself has never denied this. It was thus a big surprise that he should choose to say the idea only emerged after his resignation was approved by Beijing.

It comes across as a futile attempt to brush aside the lingering doubts over his political morality and integrity concerning the preparations he has been making for the past two years.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party