The remaking of financial chief John Tsang into ‘local Hong Kong boy’

The man poised to enter the chief executive race was not always so popular – but some smart image-building boosted his leadership credentials

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 12:48am

From his suave smile fringed by his trademark moustache, John Tsang Chun-wah appears the beaming picture of popularity, but there was a time when he attracted more brickbats than bouquets.

Such has been his makeover into one of the most popular department secretaries in the last five years that he is often praised for being “honest”, “less confrontational”, and having a “sense of humour”.

Watch: Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang resigns

As veteran political public relations consultant Peter Lam Yuk-wah said: “Depending on your political stance, you may think all of this is a kind of public relations, but in politics authenticity can be a powerful trait.”

Tsang’s popularity rating has been over 60 out of 100 for the past two years, according to tracking polls by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme.

When he was appointed financial secretary in July 2007 by then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, his rating was 57.8. It soared to 67.9 – the highest of his nine-year tenure – in February 2008.

But trouble hit him in 2011. The annual budget he presented to the legislature came under heavy fire from all quarters. At issue was what to do with a HK$71 billion surplus.

Tsang’s HK$24 billion proposal for an one-off payment of HK$6,000 directly into workers’ Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) accounts was roundly condemned. The notoriously poor returns of the retirement funds drew scorn and threats of a veto by lawmakers across the political spectrum.

Tsang beat a hasty retreat and abandoned his carefully crafted reputation for fiscal discipline. Instead he gave a HK$6,000 cash handout to every permanent resident of the city. The price tag: HK$40 billion.

In successive budgets, he never forgot the lesson and Mr Pringles – his nickname because of his similarity to the potato chip icon – morphed into Santa Claus bearing goodies of tax rebates, rate waivers, electricity subsidies, and extra allowances for the grass roots.

Several months later in 2011, he landed in another political pickle when the government’s former chief information officer Jeremy Godfrey alleged Tsang had exerted pressure on subordinates to select a government-friendly group for a HK$220 million contract to provide an internet access programme for the needy.

Tsang maintained the accusations were unfounded. But his HKU poll ratings fell from 55.4 in February 2011 to a record low of 44.9 five months later.

Seen as a protégé of Donald Tsang, he clashed at times with incumbent Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. That the two men were not friendly was plain to all who knew them. Tsang was not about suggesting so, once remarking “you always agree with the boss”.

Ironically, his popularity began climbing again after he was appointed by Leung to serve as financial secretary in his government in July 2012.

Insiders say he owes his success partly to his political assistant, Julian Law Wing-chung, whom he recruited in October 2012.

With Law’s assistance, Tsang became the first minister with an official Facebook page to stay in touch with the public, acquiring 54,000 followers in the past year.

Lam, principal consultant at AWTC (Lo & Lam), said the use of Facebook was a good image-building move. “At least, it lets people feel you are reachable.”

His rating stood at 62.1 by early last month, putting him almost 10 points ahead of Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a potential contestant in the chief executive election, whose rating was 53.2. Leung’s standing was 40.7, an improvement from earlier this year.

Some observers also viewed it a smart move for Tsang to quit before Lam.

Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said: “He decided to make an announcement on the day when the Election Committee election finished. This could give the people an impression that he is determined and it may help him garner support from the public and the committee members.”

However, politicians had mixed views on whether he would make a good chief executive.

The Liberal Party’s honorary chairman, James Tien Pei-chun, praised Tsang for having sound interpersonal skills and maintaining good relations with the media.

“Through writing his blogs, he showed the public that he enjoys watching football matches and supports the Hong Kong team. Everybody feels that he is a real ‘Hong Kong boy’ who stands on the side of Hongkongers.”

He is reluctant to spend more to improve people’s livelihoods and boost economic development
Emily Lau Wai-hing, Democratic Party

But Emily Lau Wai-hing, former chairwoman of the Democratic Party, pointed to his fiscal philosophy. “John Tsang is too stingy and miserly. He is reluctant to spend more to improve people’s livelihoods and boost economic development,” she said.

“Tsang may not be as confrontational as Carrie Lam. But he is weak vis a vis Beijing. He will not stand up for Hong Kong.”

Lawmaker and executive councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who is expected to announce this week her intention to run in the chief executive election, called Tsang “a bit of a slacker” as financial secretary.

James Sung Lap-kung of City University also said Beijing might have reservations about Tsang, partly because he appeared too sympathetic towards pan-democrats and pro-independence advocates.

“He has also served as a core member in the British colonial government,” Sung said.

In his budget last year, Tsang touched on the rising sentiment of localism and said: “The people of this city, our younger generations in particular, are hungering for spiritual contentment.”

To further his display of affection for local culture, during World Cup football qualifiers last year, Tsang showed his love for the Hong Kong team. He posted words of encouragement and pictures of himself attending live games and, when abroad, of him watching them on a tablet device.

On his official blog last December, he said localism could become a “strong and constructive force” that binds society together.

But he appeared to switch to a more hardline stance during the recent oath-taking saga involving several legislators that resulted in a rare but controversial interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. Tsang defended the move, although some pundits believed it was only a political tactic to please Beijing.

Whether Beijing is pleased enough with him to give him official blessing to run for chief executive is the mystery. The answer to that and just how far his personal popularity will take him will be clear in the coming months.