Hong Kong leadership hopefuls lock horns at first debate, but John Tsang stays away

Candidates Carrie Lam and Woo Kwok-hing spar at forum, with retired judge saying ex-chief secretary is responsible for rifts in society

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2017, 11:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 2:18am

Hong Kong leadership candidates Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Woo Kwok-hing crossed swords during the first public debate of the election race on Sunday, taking aim at each other’s policy platforms and governing styles.

But popular underdog John Tsang Chun-wah was conspicuously absent from the forum, organised by think tank Path of Democracy.

During the 90-minute sparring session, Woo locked horns with one of the hosts, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, after the think tank’s founder asked why Woo would aim such strongly worded criticism at Lam when he had pledged to mend rifts in society. Tong has previously voiced support for Lam’s ideas on government finance.

Woo, a retired judge whose 180 nominations allowing him to stand in the race all came from the city’s pan-democratic political bloc, retorted that it was Lam, who quit as the government’s No 2 official in January, that was responsible for inflaming social divides.

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A 1,194-member Election Committee will on March 26 vote on who is to be Hong Kong’s next leader. The candidates were required to secure a minimum of 150 nominations from committee members to take part in the poll.

“Lam was the top aide to [current chief executive] Leung Chun-ying and so is responsible for the splits today,” Woo said.

He added that the former chief secretary’s failure to implement political reforms had triggered the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014 and deepened mistrust between Beijing and young people in Hong Kong.

Responding to accusations by Tong that some of his remarks in the campaign had been “radical”, Woo said: “My platform has been moderate. Perhaps people do not trust your middle-of-the-road approach, but do mine.”

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That was an apparent reference to Path of Democracy’s failure in September’s Legislative Council elections to win a seat in the city’s lawmaking body. Tong dismissed suggestions he was biased and was targeting Woo.

Meanwhile, Lam was at pains to distance herself from current leader Leung, dismissing suggestions by Woo that she was “Leung Chun-ying 2.0”.

“I had never heard of such a label before my election bid ... The fact is, we are very different,” she said. “[Leung] is a man and I am a woman. He spent his career in the private sector while I have devoted myself to public service.”

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Sparks flew during a cross-examination session in which the candidates were given a chance to question each other, as Lam used the opportunity to target Woo’s lack of experience in finance.

Citing her support from financial services heavyweights including former Hong Kong Monetary Authority chief Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, Lam asked who Woo would appoint to head financial and economic policies if elected.

Woo replied he was confident capable leaders would accept invitations to join his cabinet.

Tsang, who resigned as the city’s financial secretary in December, had said he would give priority to attending forums hosted by Election Committee members and the media. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a fourth candidate who pulled out of the race last week after failing to secure sufficient nominations, said she suspected Tsang had not shown up because he saw Tong as Lam’s supporter.

Separately on Sunday, Rao Geping, a member of the Basic Law Committee, said it could trigger a constitutional crisis if Beijing refused to endorse the winner of the election on March 26.

“But if the central government doesn’t appoint him or her, let there be another election,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung