My Take

John Tsang and the perils of populism

The former finance chief says he sees nothing wrong with populism. But if he had become Hong Kong’s chief executive, who knows what his brand of ‘populism’ would have brought?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 1:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 1:47am

What’s wrong with populism? That’s an interesting question raised by John Tsang Chun-wah in a speech given at the University of Hong Kong last week. The former chief executive candidate quickly gave what appeared to be a brave answer: “Nothing. I don’t see anything wrong with it”. He then proceeded to weasel his way out of that statement for the rest of the speech.

Mea culpa it was not; more like self-justification. I almost agreed, though: There is nothing wrong with populism except when it’s faked by elitists posing as advocates for the great unwashed. Who might that be?

Tsang cited examples of bad populists, mostly Latin American presidents: Juan Peron (Argentina), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) and Evo Morales (Bolivia). What’s wrong with them if they offered “schools, pension plans, highways and so forth, and all of these benefit the people, especially who are in the lower economic strata, at least in a short term”?

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Well, Tsang called theirs “let-them-have-candies” populism. They only offered benefits in the short term but mortgaged their peoples’ future by wasting limited resources to win over voters and constituents. But those are developing economies, Mr Tsang. What about Hong Kong, with its trillion-dollar fiscal surplus? Can we afford to build good “schools, pension plans, highways and so forth … for the benefit of the people, especially those who are in the lower economic strata”?

Presumably, that’s up to “non-ideologues” like Tsang who may run on popular platforms but have the courage and wisdom to decide what’s really good for their people.

“[In] setting fiscal policy for large recurring expenditure, we need to take a more macro, longer term approach,” the former finance secretary said.

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It’s a matter of winning people over to your decency. Tsang calls it “decent populism”. Others may call it benign paternalism or elitism.

But, in reality, Tsang practised what may be called reverse populism during the decade he was finance chief. According to a Legislative Council study, of all his budget giveaways and handouts, 28.7 per cent went to property owners and 23.5 per cent to taxpayers; only 3.9 per cent to low-income families and another 7.6 per cent to other disadvantaged groups.

Tsang was called a “populist” only because he ran against Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was backed by Beijing. But if he had become chief executive, who knows what his brand of “populism” would bring? We were lucky we didn’t have to find out.