27 February 2020
No sweat: Financial Secretary John Tsang trumps Chief Secretary Carrie Lam in the popularity department. Photo: HKEJ
No sweat: Financial Secretary John Tsang trumps Chief Secretary Carrie Lam in the popularity department. Photo: HKEJ

How Tsang was able to beat Lam as most popular secretary

Who says government service is a thankless job? 

Just do a blog every Sunday and avoid the news cameras, and you’ll end up being the best civil servant in town. No sweat.

That’s probably why Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has trumped his supervisor Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in the latest popularity survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

For the first time, the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies poll listed Tsang as the most popular among the secretaries, with his score up 0.7 point at 56.8, while Lam had a drop of 2.1 points at 54.8.

Throughout the summer, Lam the indefatigable met with politicians of all stripes, trying to work out a generally acceptable version of universal suffrage for 2017. Always articulate and cautious, the secretary only goofed once when she described a Basic Law expert’s view on the nomination method as having “set the tone with one beat of the gong”. She later apologized for the misunderstanding her statement has caused.

By comparison, Tsang won the best score by carefully avoiding media scrutiny. But he also got enough news mileage by coming up with a Sunday blog in Chinese, which is usually picked up by media on a slow Monday.

Tsang is one of the few financial secretaries in the world who can come up with a weekly report. In fact, in July 2009, he produced two blogs on a single day – one on his conversation with US economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman and another on his chat with a group of youngsters. 

Before that, he had been posting only one or two articles per month since becoming the financial secretary seven years ago.

Despite having stayed in the States for 13 years, including as student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he took up architecture, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Tsang has only managed to have his blog in Chinese. What a waste!

His style of dealing with the media — through online announcements instead of a formal briefing with a question and answer session — has been widely criticized by our brothers and sisters in the profession because they only get safe answers without being able to throw follow-up questions. One such case was when he warned of a perfect storm that Occupy Central would inflict on the financial sector. 

A good fencer, Tsang knows the secret of winning lies in protecting himself first. That is why after he issued his warning against Occupy Central, he didn’t go any further. He’d rather wait for the other side to fire back.

Likewise, Tsang has yet to express his views on the universal pension scheme suggested by a research team from the University of Hong Kong, which may see the government footing much of the HK$50 billion bill. He would rather let Lam handle the controversial proposal while he writes on his blog about his hippie days in Boston.

That is perhaps the best strategy Tsang has adopted in order not to be dragged by the unpopular image of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, and probably a good case study for Harvard, his alma mater, on government administration.

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EJ Insight writer