HK's Tsang pitches softer touch in quest to run city

Mr John Tsang
Mr John TsangPHOTO: BLOOMBERG

He cites ability to reach out across political divides as giving him an edge over main rival

HONG KONG • Hong Kong's former financial chief John Tsang, who is vying for the city's top job, said his ability to reach out across political divides makes him better suited to run the Asian financial hub than his former boss or chief rival.

Mr Tsang, 65, resigned as finance secretary last month to prepare his bid to succeed Mr Leung Chun Ying, whose hardline approach to groups seeking greater democracy has been blamed for inflaming tensions in the former British colony.

Mr Tsang's main opponent is Mrs Carrie Lam, 59, who quit as the city's No. 2 official this month to pursue her bid.

"People are really tired of the discord we have had," Mr Tsang said in an interview on Wednesday.

"We want to bring about a more harmonious society. We need to build consensus rather than (take) a confrontational position."

Mr Tsang is seeking to differentiate himself among leading candidates for the March vote, whose stated policies do not vary drastically.

Surging property prices and living costs are constant sources of concern among Hong Kong's 7.3 million people, while growing polarisation among China proponents and pro- democracy groups has triggered street protests in recent years.

"It's hard to say what he did wrong," Mr Tsang said of Mr Leung, who announced last month that he would not seek a second term because of family reasons.

While many of Mr Leung's policies were "not bad", Mr Tsang said, "the fact is there has been discord in the community".

"I think what we need is to embrace inclusiveness," he added.

Mrs Lam would "carry on the policies, the practice of the current administration", Mr Tsang said. "I would bring about more inclusiveness in our community. I would bring about more participation from different sectors of the society. More than she would."

Mr Leung's office had no comment.

Mr Tai Keen Man, a media official with Mrs Lam's campaign, said by e-mail that she has "stressed that the government should listen to the people, whose collective wisdom is invaluable, and should build a more inclusive society by striving for greater consensus".

Opposition lawmaker Dennis Kwok said Mr Tsang has better ties with pro-democracy advocates than Mrs Lam, whose interactions were "definitely icy".

"The advantage of John Tsang is that he has a much better relationship with us and would be able to unite at least the moderates much easier," said Mr Kwok.

Mr Tsang said top priorities would include creating a new education department run by professionals and making housing more affordable - a persistent headache for Mr Leung despite taxes and mortgage caps introduced under his administration.

Mr Tsang said he would focus on large-scale land reclamation and redeveloping the city's ageing housing, while avoiding moves to build on country parks as proposed by Mr Leung this week.

Mr Tsang had to wait more than a month for the central government authorities to approve his resignation and clear his candidacy, which has been interpreted as a sign that they are not backing his campaign.

"There's no reason to believe I'm not trusted by Beijing," he said on Wednesday.

Mrs Lam's resignation was accepted within a week, fuelling perceptions she is Beijing's pick for the job.

EMBRACING INCLUSIVENESS

I would bring about more inclusiveness in our community. I would bring about more participation from different sectors of the society.

MR JOHN TSANG, Hong Kong's former financial chief, who is vying for the city's top job.

Mr Tsang said he would look at political reform, a tricky subject since the 2014 Occupy Central protests that brought parts of the city to a halt for nearly 80 days. Demonstrators objected to a model giving Hong Kong people the right to vote, but only for candidates vetted by a Beijing-dominated election committee.

"People in Hong Kong aspire to universal suffrage," said Mr Tsang. "And this is something that we need to work on."

Even so, he said it was pointless to discuss independence. "Hong Kong independence is really a non- issue. This is not something conceivable. People talking about it is really sort of out of tune."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'HK's Tsang pitches softer touch in quest to run city'. Print Edition | Subscribe