Does John Tsang have eye on Hong Kong's top job?

Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang's fiery Budget speech yesterday has triggered speculation about his own political ambitions.
Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang's fiery Budget speech yesterday has triggered speculation about his own political ambitions.PHOTO: REUTERS

It was meant to be a Budget speech.

But Finance Secretary John Tsang's remarks yesterday have set tongues wagging, with many speculating if they were the opening salvo in a campaign to garner popular support for a bid to become Hong Kong's next Chief Executive.

Mr Tsang surprised many when he openly expressed his frustration with the city's political situation - a sentiment shared by most Hong Kongers. "As a member of the Hong Kong community, I am deeply troubled by the current situation," he said.

The speech was peppered with references showcasing how the 64-year-old relates to the everyday man: setting up a Facebook account to "rejuvenate" his contact with the public; the appeal of Hong Kong's Cantonese films; its football team's "never-say-die spirit" in a World Cup qualifying match.

It drew praise, including from executive council convenor Lam Woon Kwong, who said: "I think he spoke for a lot of Hong Kong people who have gone through this rather rough road and yet still are confident we can forge.. a better future."

Pro-business legislator Andrew Leung called it Mr Tsang's best Budget speech in his nine years as Financial Secretary.

Even radical pro-democracy legislator Albert Chan of People's Power offered grudging approval for Mr Tsang's promotion of local Cantonese films and help for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Asked later if he was contemplating a run for the city's top job, Mr Tsang sidestepped the question, saying whatever answer he gave would be met with disbelief. He has said previously he was not keen on the post.

If he changes his mind, it will be a challenge for beleaguered Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, who has indicated he wants a second term. Beijing, while the ultimate anointer, takes public opinion into account.

Still, some detractors dismissed the speech as lacking in substance. Pro-Beijing legislator Regina Ip, who has made plain her own ambitions, said it scores "in terms of PR techniques" but offers no solutions.

The Labour Party's Fernando Cheung said Mr Tsang had "certainly pleased most Hong Kongers" as he at least acknowledged the problem. However, the Budget content did not offer much to resolve the issues - be it in helping the young attain higher academic qualifications or investing in occupational training, he said. "There is some effort, but it is far from enough," he said.

Still, given the disenchantment with Mr Leung, this may suffice.

Noting that Mr Tsang has distanced himself from the current regime in the speech, Dr Cheung said: "It gives you a feeling that he is not part of the problem. So it shows that he is certainly positioning himself to attain higher popularity."

Li Xueying

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 25, 2016, with the headline 'Is John Tsang eyeing HK's top job?'. Print Edition | Subscribe