HK Financial Secretary's 'reel dream'

Tsang lauded over Budget boost for local films; he's seen as possible contender for top post

Mr Tsang before presenting the Budget on Wednesday. He announced plans to encourage the production of Cantonese films.
Mr Tsang before presenting the Budget on Wednesday. He announced plans to encourage the production of Cantonese films.PHOTO: REUTERS

Cantonese films made a surprise appearance in Hong Kong's Budget speech this year.

While measures such as injections into the tourism industry had been expected, Financial Secretary John Tsang also announced a subsidy scheme for Cantonese films made in Hong Kong and distributed in mainland China.

"Locally produced Cantonese films - a key component of the local culture - have all along been well-received by audiences on the mainland and in South-east Asia," he noted.

This shout-out to the city's Cantonese film industry helped make Mr Tsang a hit himself.

Radical pro-democracy legislators - who habitually lob both insults and objects at government leaders - offered some praise this time, for his "endorsement" of local culture.

The 64-year-old was even feted as a possible contender in the Chief Executive (CE) race, due to be held next year, after his fiery remarks on the political situation during his Budget speech.

Mr Tsang's announcement regarding local films was unexpected, especially given sensitivities over the issue of "local culture" - which was what rioters claimed they were defending when they clashed with police in Mongkok over Chinese New Year.

Early this year, the indie film anthology Ten Years - which tapped into fears that Hong Kong's identity, including its use of Cantonese, is under threat - was lambasted by mainland state tabloid Global Times as being "ridiculous".

In a post-Budget press conference, Mr Tsang said he had seen the film. Asked for his critique, he said the directors had been rather amateurish and the scenarios depicted were "exaggerated".

Altogether, his own performance was typical as he has always sought to navigate - though not always successfully - between his status as a longstanding member of the establishment and his efforts to relate to the everyday man.

Nicknamed "Mr Pringles" by the local media for his resemblance to the potato chip brand's mustachioed mascot, Mr Tsang rose through the ranks of the Hong Kong government. Nine years ago, former CE Donald Tsang appointed him as financial secretary.

Word is that he was retained by current CE Leung Chun-ying because Beijing wanted an experienced man in charge of the finances. Rumours of a rift between the two men have persisted ever since. The latest chatter about Mr Tsang will not help relations, given that Mr Leung himself is keen on a second term.

Certainly, in contrast to his boss, who unfortunately comes off in public as being rather humourless, Mr Tsang is practised at seeming more relatable. He has a blog that he regularly updates with his personal musings on policies and politics. Last year, he also set up a Facebook account so he could gain "another perspective to observe people's daily lives and to hear their voices".

In 2013, when a protester threw an egg at him during a forum, his quick riposte was: "Luckily I'm not wearing a good suit today." When he was asked later if the real target could have been the CE - who was seated next to him - a grim Mr Leung intervened and told him not to comment.

In an incident last year that helped Mr Tsang secure a key political goal, he voiced his unequivocal support for Hong Kong when it went up against China in a tense World Cup qualifying match. While Mr Leung was seen as fudging about which team he supported, Mr Tsang asserted: "The Hong Kong team played an excellent match - we should be proud of them."

Most importantly, he has shown an openness to at least discussing the elephant in the room - the debilitating political conflicts now strafing Hong Kong.

In his Budget speech this year, he spoke of the Mongkok riots and the "turbulence" mounting in Hong Kong, and called for a square look at the underlying factors as well as the determination needed to resolve the conflicts.

On Friday, he said he had heard the complaints of a resident in a video clip that had gone viral, acknowledging that societal problems had been festering.

But he has had metaphorical egg on his face too. Three years ago, his attempt at empathy fell flat when he asserted that he was a member of the middle class.

"I have read articles that say the middle class are people who drink coffee and like French movies. I like movies and tea, so there's not much difference (in my life) with the lives of the middle class."

Ultimately, Hong Kongers want substance to back up the rhetoric.

For now, astute observers have noted that - for all of Mr Tsang's talk about the need to examine the issues behind Hong Kongers' unhappiness - there has been little in his Budgets to substantively tackle these problems, such as long-term plans to diversify Hong Kong's economy.

Still, with the CE election coming up next year and Hong Kongers facing a paucity of appealing choices, Mr Tsang could find himself a front runner in the race for the top job.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'HK Financial Secretary's 'reel dream''. Subscribe