My Take

Both top contenders in the chief executive race are cut from the same cloth

John Tsang and Carrie Lam are career civil servants, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be good leaders

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 3:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 8:12am

John Tsang Chun-wah made much of his popularity in opinion polls and social media during his first televised debate with his two chief executive election rivals.

In truth, all but one major surveys have found him ahead of Beijing’s reported favourite, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

He shouldn’t let it go to his head, though, even if he wins the race over Lam. A victory for Tsang is unlikely of course, but not impossible. But just as pan-democrats have put him on a pedestal today, they would round on him the minute he wins. Their support for him is but a ploy: If he wins, they can claim victory over Beijing. If he loses, they will say that’s typical of Beijing to defy the wishes of Hong Kong people. If the central government had preferred Tsang, the situation would have been reversed and Lam would have had the pan-dems’ votes.

John Tsang neck and neck with Carrie Lam in poll for Hong Kong’s next leader

Pan-democrats, of course, know that Tsang is not, and will never be, one of them. He is as likely to side with them and defy the central government as Lam or outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who has been rewarded by being made a state leader. As chief executive, Tsang might even be more subservient knowing he wasn’t Beijing’s choice and would need to prove his loyalty.

But since Beijing has given more than hints as to its favoured candidate, pan-dems are mobilising public opinion, quite successfully, to draw artificial differences between Lam and Tsang.

Tsang is the friendly, responsive mandarin while Lam is the female version of the dictatorial Leung, or what Tsang called during the debate “Leung 2.0”.

Who won the big Hong Kong chief executive debate?

But both candidates are cut from the same cloth, after spending their entire careers in the civil service. They know how to run a civil service, but not necessarily a government or a quasi-city-state. Their idea of governing is to give a bit of resources and benefits to every major constituent, but neither is likely to commit to any long-overdue economic overhauls or political reforms.

Tsang would become less stingy as chief executive than when he was finance secretary – especially with spending on livelihood matters. Lam would have to learn about balancing the budget and placating the business elite.

Despite the vilification and caricatures, both are probably decent people. I just don’t know whether they make good leaders.