Redefining Hong Kong

Hong Kong finance chief shares views on qualities a chief executive should have, but stays mum on whether he’ll run

In an unusually candid exchange, John Tsang also says he has ‘skeletons’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 11:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 1:53am

Offering a rare glimpse of his political thinking, Hong Kong’s finance chief has sided with tycoon Li Ka-shing on the essential qualities needed for the city’s next chief executive – a position he is hotly tipped to pursue next year.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah shared his views on governance at the Post’s latest Redefining Hong Kong Debate Series forum on Thursday, touching on an array of sensitive issues facing the city including economic uncertainties, tax increases as well as social and political conflicts.

Speaking before an audience comprising business leaders and professionals, he said he agreed with Li’s remarks on Wednesday describing the attributes he thought the city’s next chief executive should possess.

“One attribute is having good understanding of the community, having good empathy with the people, being really close to the ground as to what people aspire to be and how people want to live their life in the years to come,” Tsang said.

Li had said during a media interview that Hong Kong’s next top official should understand the city and fill it with hope.

However, the finance chief steered clear of delivering an assessment of his boss, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Leung is said to be keen to seek re-election next year.

Tsang joked that in his 40-year working career he had learned “not to assess your boss”. He added: “I only have to say that all bosses are capable,” eliciting laughter from the audience.

Asked if he considered himself too “pure” to be a political leader, he admitted he had “skeletons” in the cupboard that would not escape public scrutiny.

“I’ve been a civil servant for over 30 years,” he said. “I’m sure all my skeletons are all over the community.”

“People may look at some of the skeletons and pursue them,” he continued. “Some may just ignore them. But ... I wasn’t born yesterday, so there must a skeleton somewhere.”

Despite the candid exchange, Tsang sidestepped the key question of whether he would run for chief executive next year.

“I’ve answered the question so many times,” he said. “People will interpret it in such a different way that it’s got to cost you a lot more to explain it further. I won’t say anything further than that. I just say ‘ditto’.”

In April, Tsang said he had “no such plan at present” to run.

As Hong Kong is embroiled into a confidence crisis over its future and the One Country Two Systems triggered by the recent advocacy of independence and the infamous Causeway Bay bookstore controversy, Tsang said these touchy issues should be brought out for an open discussion so the public can decide their future.

“I don’t think we are facing a purely about lack of confidence or anything like that. We are an open society and freedom of speech is something that we value,” he said.

“(These issues) should be brought out so that we have a discussion in the community and decide our way forward. I think that’s what all open societies should embrace.”

But Tsang immediately jumped into his defense when being criticised as adopting a miserly approach to fiscal management, vastly different from Leung’s style of spending public money.

Worst time in 20 years for Hong Kong economy, financial secretary John Tsang says

“I’ve been a financial secretary for 9 years. In terms of our budget, our expenditure has grown by more than 100 per cent...You’ll be hard pressed to find another economy that the government expenditure has been growing in that way,” he argued.

“Am I constraining expenditure? I don’t think so. For all policies with the proper implementation schedule, I don’t think we have ever rejected anything that can be implemented properly.”