John Tsang walks thin line as he promises both political reform and revisiting of Article 23 in election manifesto

Popular contender in city’s leadership race holds press conference at YMCA

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 February, 2017, 8:17am

This was the Post’s rolling coverage of the press conference hosted by chief executive contender John Tsang Chun-wah at YMCA of Hong Kong at 2.30pm, where he elaborated on his election platform. In the 75-page manifesto uploaded on his campaign website at 10am on Monday, the former financial secretary pledged to restart the electoral reform process and revive the legislative work to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Article 23 states that Hong Kong should enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the central government. The Hong Kong government attempted to pass such a law but shelved the plan after half a million people took to the streets in protest on July 1, 2003.

See below for reactions to Tsang's manifesto, a timeline of events at the press conference, as well as some of the platform’s key points.

Reactions to John Tsang’s manifesto

Members of the Democratic Party said they believed “it was a good thing” if former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah did not blindly obey the “831 decision” – the stringent framework on political reform laid down by the National People’s Congress standing committee on August 31, 2014.

Commenting on Tsang’s election platform on Monday, lawmaker Wu Chi-wai said he felt the chief executive contender had shown sincerity about restarting political reform despite the difficulties involved.

“At least he has offered the pathway of political reform in order to resolve the current predicament, if we understand him correctly,” Wu said, stressing that the party would ask Tsang for more details when they met.

John Tsang unveils election platform, covering issues from political reform to ‘negative income tax’

Lawmaker James To Kun-sun said the former finance chief had at least showed that he did not insist on obeying the “831 decision” and promised to truly reflect the opinion of Hongkongers on political reform to Beijing.

“At least Tsang is willing to do that,” To said.

On Tsang’s position on the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, Wu said he believed society could reach a consensus on the matter if the future leader could learn from past experience and carry out a comprehensive consultation.

“It would avoid public panic if the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law might be able to be carried out loosely without affecting the freedom of speech of Hongkongers,” Wu said.

The party said it would decide who to vote for after meeting all four contenders, but it was “less likely” to back Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee as she had very different views from its members.

Ip herself commented on several areas of Tsang’s platform.

“Relaunching political reform is the people’s common wish ... but we cannot evade the central government’s legal decisions,” Ip said, referring to the “831 decision”.

“The NPCSC also made decisions on the city’s political reform in 2004 and 2007. These are the foundations and starting points of political reform.

“All decisions made by the NPCSC should be respected and followed. It’s impossible to evade it. We also need mutual trust – between the central and local governments, between the Legislative Council and the chief executive ... The lack of mutual trust is not conducive to political reforms.”

However, Ip agreed with Tsang on education reform.

“In the past, the government combined the education department and bureau to cut costs ... but it was inappropriate and needs review.

“We need someone who is familiar with education matters, devoted and energetic to oversee education policy ... and if I am elected, I will find the best talent to do the job.”

On Tsang’s idea to draft a white paper bill for the Article 23 national security legislation, Ip said: “There are a lot of ways to do it ... Some people had suggested doing it through a white paper bill or through the Law Commission. The most important thing is to have sufficient time for public consultation.”

Ip stepped down as security minister after 500,000 people took to the streets to protest against an Article 23 bill.

Ip also said that it was impossible for the city to have “a single standard working hour”.

“I cannot see how it is that likely in our diversified and hi-tech economy ... even the Federation of Trade Unions agrees on the need for exemption – the thing we need to discuss is how much exemption to have.”

On amending the anti-graft law to include the chief executive, she stopped short of endorsing Tsang’s idea, saying that while the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance should be amended, the chief executive could be made more accountable by tightening the interest declaration regulations of the Executive Council.

Ip was speaking after a 90-minute meeting with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong on Monday morning.

More than 100 DAB members attended a meeting with the leadership race’s front-runner Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Saturday, but Ip’s event on Monday was attended by only about 70 members, according to the party’s chairwoman Starry Lee Wai-king.

Ip said: “The attendance wasn’t a problem ... some of them said during the meeting that they have been supporting me.”

Lee said the DAB would decide who to support after meeting Tsang on Tuesday and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing later this week.

Some core members of the DAB have already joined Lam’s campaign office and attended her rally last Friday.

As it happened

3.33pm – Group photo

Chief executive aspirant John Tsang Chun-wah finishes answering his last question and takes a group photo with his team while reporters continue to ask him more questions about his platform. He smiles and waves goodbye to them as he leaves the venue.

3.28pm – Stance on ‘831 decision’

Tsang is again asked to clarify his stance on the “831 decision” (on political reform) laid down by Beijing. He stresses once more that the decision is an essential part of political reform, which should be done as soon as possible alongside legislation of Article 23.

On the progressive profits tax, Tsang says his proposal is mainly aimed at helping small and medium enterprises and “the big companies will still have to pay the rate of 16.5 per cent”.

On his idea of “proactive enablement”, he cites as an example that the government should get rid of “micromanagement” at schools and let school heads handle matters at their own institutions.

“I shall recreate the post of education director to allow professional personnel to handle education affairs.”

3.23pm – Win-win situation

Explaining his plan to developing old areas into a commercial district, Tsang says the government will offer incentives to private property owners so that they will support the plan, try to find a balance and achieve a win-win situation. He says the plan will help the city’s development on the whole.

3.21pm – Currency talk

John Tsang denies he has tried to favour the business sector and developers in his platform.

“There is no question of [discriminating against the working class] – there is a need for us to strike a balance,” Tsang says.

On the US dollar peg, he says: “In the short term, there is no possibility to see any change.”

But he suggests that this could be reviewed in the very long term.

He also believes the renminbi will one day be liberalised and become convertible.

3.19pm – Different from CY

Asked how he can secure his nomination in this heated contest, Tsang says he hopes to do so by releasing his platform early.

In reply to a question on how he differs from incumbent top official Leung Chun-ying, Tsang says that he can at least give Hongkongers a new hope, and that he will show that his team is trustworthy and capable. They will operate with transparency and hope to gain the trust of the public and unify society.

3.15pm – On pleasing pan-democrats

On comments that he had omitted the National People’s Congress standing committee’s ruling in August 2014 in his platform on political reform in order to please the pan-democrats, John Tsang says: “If it is supported only by one part of the political spectrum, it is not the Hong Kong people’s support.”

3.08pm – On missing tycoon Xiao Jianhua

Asked about the case of Chinese businessman Xiao Jianhua, Tsang says: “I don’t know a lot about the details of the case. If there is anything that is illegal according to the Basic Law, we shall pursue it...”

He says the Basic Law has stated clearly what the responsibilities of the agencies stationed in Hong Kong are.

On resolving the MPF offsetting issue, Tsang says he believes the government should have some input, thus his proposal of setting up a “seed fund”.

3.06pm – Lowering tax rates

Tsang is asked whether his pledge to lower profit tax rates will affect the economy and how it will affect businesses. Tsang says it is an international trend for governments to lower such rates, citing

the latest moves by UK prime minister of Theresa May and US president of Donald Trump.

He says Hong Kong has to maintain its current simple tax system, but the government has to consider whether the rate is competitive enough.

He says lowering the tax rate will ease the burden of small companies and encourage them to invest more back to the business. He believes it will help the economy in the short and medium term. The income of the government will not be affected much in the short term, he adds.

3.04pm – Moving things forward

John Tsang rejects a suggestion that he shifted his stance in order to please the pan-democrats. He reiterates that he is hopeful “we can move things forward” and that the “chance of achieving a successful conclusion is great” if there is a consensus in the society.

3.00pm – Transparency and consultation

Responding to a question about his position on the legislation of Article 23 and how he can persuade democrats to vote for him, Tsang stresses that it is the city’s legal duty to introduce the national security law. Despite the goverment’s failure to do so in 2003, Tsang says the procedure can be handled better next time, and he will conduct an open consultation on the matter, as stated in his platform.

He plans to find a legal authority figure to lead a workshop and consult the public. The procedure will be handled in a very transparent way, Tsang says.

He adds that the process of political reform and legislation of Article 23 should begin “as soon as possible”, as the current Legislative Council term ends in 2020. He says there are only two years left, and he wants progress within this time frame.

2.59pm – Dodging questions

Tsang declines to elaborate on how he is going to enact Article 23.

On his proposals on tax reviews, he also sidesteps questions on why he did not put forward such proposals – like the progressive profits tax and negative income tax – during his tenure as the financial secretary.

But Tsang maintains that his progressive profits tax could lessen the burden on small and medium enterprises.

2.52pm – Harmonious environment

John Tsang says he believes political reform can be restarted if there is a change in social sentiment. But he adds that the National People’s Congress standing committee ruling in August 2014 is important.

“We tried it once in 2014, but it failed. But I feel that if there is a harmonious environment in Hong Kong, we can enhance communication with all sectors. We believe we can reach consensus, and I shall convey it to the central government. I believe the central government will make an accurate judgement.”

2.48pm – Reform needs consensus

Tsang highlights political reform in Hong Kong as a key issue, but stresses that it is “fruitless” if the plan is pushed forward bluntly without a public consensus.

He says the situation in Hong Kong has changed vastly over time, and the current atmosphere is very politicised. Focusing only on developing the economy will not solve the problem.

The principle of “big market and small government” can no longer solve Hong Kong’s problems, Tsang says, as he proposes “proactive enablement” for the new government. The administration should take a proactive role to introduce new ideas, target core issues and solve the accumulated problems in the society.

Tsang stresses it is important for the government to demonstrate that it defends the core values of Hongkongers and effectively implements the “one country, two systems” principle. He says that the government should act with integrity, procedural justice and credibility.

2.30pm – ‘Convergence of hearts’

In introducing his platform, John Tsang says Hong Kong needs a “convergence of hearts” because “without unity of the people, there is no way we can achieve good governance”.

He also promises to continue meeting people from different sectors to listen to their views to improve his platform in the coming weeks.

Tsang says his election platform was also his vision for Hong Kong for the next 20 to 30 years.

“Although a chief executive’s term is only five years, a chief executive candidate should not only plan for the next five years. He should have long-term vision and set targets for the next 20 to 30 years, to plan for our next generation.”

Highlights of Tsang’s platform

On the economy

• Look into introducing progressive profit tax to help SMEs rather than current flat tax of 16.5 per cent

• Promote renminbi as reserve and settlement currency

• Make Hong Kong fintech hub of Asia

On housing and land planning

• Develop New Territories North and retain unique features of small towns

• Better use of brownfield and deserted agricultural land through integrated planning

• Speed up redevelopment of aged public housing

• Address small house issues in New Territories flexibly

On youth and sports

• Enable young people to participate in policy discussion

• Abolish all TSA and BCA tests

• Introduce Chinese and Hong Kong history into junior secondary curriculum

• Launch 10-year plan for sports with new Cultural and Sports Bureau

On helping underprivileged and elderly

• Have “negative tax” or allowance for the low-income

• Introduce town-planning standards to cover elderly homes