John Tsang formally declares bid to lead Hong Kong and vows to ‘restore hope in time of great uncertainty’

Former finance chief launches leadership bid with message of hope and unity but is coy on Beijing’s intentions and the issue of restarting political reform

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 12:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 10:30am

Former finance minister John Tsang Chun-wah on Thursday pitched himself as the man to heal Hong Kong’s social ills and bridge political divisions as he announced his bid to contest the city’s leadership election.

While he vowed to rebuild trust and restore unity with the support of people across the political spectrum, Tsang sidestepped the burning question of whether Beijing had tried to dissuade him from running so that he would not challenge his former colleague, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

In the company of Hong Kong’s business elites, outgoing and incoming leaders, Beijing’s top man in the city calls for unity

He insisted he was confident Beijing would allow a fair contest, but projected himself as a better listener and team leader than the former No 2 official, who is seen as the central government’s preferred choice. And, like her, he remained vague on whether he would restart the political reform process for universal suffrage.

Tsang’s entry has kick-started the four-candidate race in which each will have to seek at least 150 nominations from a pool of 1,194 Election Committee members to qualify, and gain more than 600 votes to win on March 26.

Watch: John Tsang declares bid to lead Hong Kong

Accompanied by his wife, his son and dozens of supporters, Tsang, 65, announced his intention to seek the top job three days after Beijing accepted his resignation, tendered a month ago.

In a 20-minute speech, he struck a friendly note, talking of his early life in the United States, his three decades of public service and his vision for Hong Kong.

“Looking back on my life, my greatest realisation is that confrontation, pessimism and prejudice are not inevitable,” he said. “What we need is to rebuild trust, re-establish unity and rekindle hope.”

Adopting the words “trust, unity and hope” as his campaign slogan, he vowed to change the minds of many Hongkongers considering emigration in recent years because of pessimism about the city’s future. A divided society needed respite after the political turmoil of the past few years, he said, “but that doesn’t mean doing nothing”.

At the same time, Tsang acknowledged that outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s diagnosis of the city’s housing problem was “largely correct”. He promised to keep ramping up land supply and tackle soaring property prices.

Tsang also stressed that social and economic policies needed to be reassessed in view of the changing global situation and rise of protectionism.

“Instead of acting against market forces, our mission is to remedy its pitfalls and improve its implementation, helping those who have fallen through the safety net, and ensure a decent livelihood,” he said.

I’m sending an invitation to all 7.45 million Hongkongers so that together we can make Hong Kong a better place
John Tsang

When asked whether he would relaunch the political reform process after the current administration failed to push it through in 2015, he was less forthcoming. “We have to determine whether the political situation has indeed changed from 2014,” he said. “If it hasn’t changed, we’re just banging our heads against the wall. That would not serve any purpose.”

However, he pledged to conduct proper dialogue with all stakeholders and see if a compromise could be reached.

In his speech, Tsang also spoke of his patriotism several times, recalling his teenage days when he would get into fights in New York whenever someone insulted the Chinese.

He would not speculate on why Beijing took more than a month to accept his resignation, compared with only four days for his arch-rival Lam. He also would not clarify whether Beijing’s liaison office in the city had asked him to stay out of the race, only saying there were people who encouraged him to run and “there were others who said otherwise”.

Lam, who attended the liaison office’s spring cocktail reception as a guest of honour on Thursday night,said she welcomed Tsang’s participation but declined to comment on his past performance. Expressing hope for a fair contest, Lam asked Election Committee members to compare the candidates’ platforms, adding that she expected they would “exercise independent thinking” in voting.

Their election rival Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee also welcomed Tsang’s entry, while the fourth contender, retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, criticised Tsang’s “weak” stance on political reform.

Chinese University political scientist Ma Ngok said Tsang should be able to woo moderates in the pan-democratic camp.

Kenneth Leung, coordinator of the 326 pan-democrats on the Election Committee, said Tsang’s speech did have some appeal and he would encourage all candidates, including Tsang, to meet with them and discuss their platforms. But the camp had not committed to any candidate.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung