21 September 2019
Tsang Tak-sing is a lifetime loyalist to the communist party and has made great sacrifices. Photo: HKEJ
Tsang Tak-sing is a lifetime loyalist to the communist party and has made great sacrifices. Photo: HKEJ

Tsang loves the party, but does the party love him?

The sudden ouster of two ministers last Tuesday reflects the rabid infighting within the ruling class.

Leung Chun-ying announced his cabinet reshuffle – new Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah and Secretary for the Civil Service Clement Cheung Wan-ching replacing Tsang Tak-sing and Paul Tang Kwok-wai respectively – on the same day the results of blood sample tests on 900 residents affected by the tainted water saga were also expected.

Probably the arrangement was deliberately made so the impact of the two issues could counterbalance each other but Hongkongers can only feel that those in high places, incapable of ensuring public health, are now engaged in a new round of internal feuds.

I have some views based on my observations.

Leung must have secured approval from his mainland bosses during his trip to Beijing earlier this month and informed the two successors and ordered them to keep their lips sealed.

Very likely, Tsang and Tang were not told of their removal until before the weekly meeting of the Executive Council Tuesday morning and other members of the cabinet were informed during the meeting in the absence of Tsang and Tang.

Leung called a news conference and announced the personnel changes shortly after the meeting.

Tsang’s own account of “seamless transition” is also a hint that he had to step down the moment he was told to as Leung refused to allow him a transition period.

There might have been some severe disagreements within Leung’s cabinet but Leung remained firm.

The fact that he met the press on his own indicates that some key figures, like the Chief Secretary and the Executive Council Convenor, chose to step away from the controversy because they have their own reservations.

The two outgoing secretaries didn’t say they offered to quit, nor did Leung note that he tried to ask them to stay.

Rather, Leung was seen in an upbeat mood, and, while smiling, he refuted that the two tendered resignations themselves.

Obviously, Leung is more than happy to claim it as his victory. Not only has he smashed the rumor of his impending extrication, one of his big foes in the government is also down.

Since I am not familiar with Tang, so I will just focus on the many implications of Tsang’s exit, which cannot just be viewed as an isolated incident.

Instead, it is the result of the long-lasting rift between Leung’s camp of “new patriots” and the city’s old-line leftists, or the “old patriots”.

From the “seamless transition” mentioned above, we know that the power struggle, even among Beijing loyalists, is brutal without any leeway for any side.

I became a full-time advisor at the SAR Government’s Central Policy Unit (CPU) not long after the 1997 handover but I was suddenly stripped of my post in 2003 when my policy recommendations to the top leader were no longer liked.

The process back then was quite “seamless” too as I was not given a last day: I was told at 4 p.m. that day and had to pack my bags within an hour.

But compared to how Leung treated Tsang, I have to say the government was quite lenient to me back then as I was told to leave in the last month before the expiry of my contract. On the other hand, there are still two years left in Tsang’s tenure as home affairs minister.

Tsang was my colleague at the same administrative level at CPU and he attended the internal meeting about my dismissal.

His own dismissal turned out to be far more humiliating. On the day of his ouster, Leung’s allies and pro-government forums had already been throwing oblique insults at his integrity.

My guess is that there have been some grave conflicts between Leung and Tsang, something more severe than my disagreement with the government at that time.

These can’t be hearsay like Tsang’s negligence in youth affairs or his inabilities due to old age, but must be issues of irreconcilable strife that prompted Leung to expel him from cabinet for good.

In terms of performance, Tsang is never among the least capable ministers. The present crop is unremarkable with the competence and integrity of some being repeatedly questioned.

But in his official capacity Tsang has never been a subject of public doubt. Had it not been for some bitter, fundamental row between the two, Tsang would have been allowed to leave in a more dignified manner.

After all, he is a lifetime loyalist to the party and has made great sacrifices (he was once jailed for two years by the colonial authorities for spreading Communist thoughts). So it’s apparent that Leung just wanted to get rid of him.

Then how to define the old leftists and those “new patriots”? The 1967 riot against the British rule formed a dividing line. People who had already been Beijing’s adherents before that year can be called the “old patriots” and those that switched to Beijing’s side after the incident are the “new patriots”.

Surely, in terms of political seniority, local leftists are ahead of Beijing’s new friends. So the fact that old-line Tsang was sacked by Leung the new patriot is an interesting exception, and it can’t happen without the consent from the top leadership in Beijing.

Then we can conjecture that when Leung told Tsang that he was being sacked Tuesday morning, there must be a top party cadre present to make sure that Tsang wouldn’t resist and would be “glad to retire”.

No one knows what exactly was going on between Leung and Tsang. Some cite Tsang’s strong objection to Leung’s plan to rezone plots in the proposed sports complex at Kai Tak, but I don’t think such a dispute can lead to an outcome of this magnitude.

Still, sooner or later, pieces of truth will filter through various channels.

The rift among the authorities and in the pro-establishment camp has widened.  There are now three major factions: Leung and his allies, local leftists represented by Tsang and those loyal to Henry Tang Ying-yen.

Local leftists once commanded wide popularity among Hong Kong’s grassroots, but after the handover, the camp suffered a crippling decline as their supporters have turned to the SAR government and the new patriots to secure their interests.

When senior members are either dead or fading rapidly into history, local leftists as a whole believe the 2017 chief executive election is their last chance to grab hold of power.

Then what is Leung’s strategy to defend his job? Tarnishing old patriots for all the faults that triggered last year’s Occupy movement.

So all of sudden, Tsang the old patriot has become a collateral target: Leung’s lackeys pass all the blame to him for the unpatriotic youth and thoughts of Hong Kong independence.

But Leung himself is on thin ice, too, as he now owes a great deal to Beijing and he must requite his mainland bosses.

If he fails to accomplish tasks to Beijing’s satisfaction during the rest of his term, Beijing will fire him exactly the way he did to Tsang. This is the sort of old plot we see in many gangster films, but we have now seen the ways of the underworld in Hong Kong’s political arena.

If there is any more incident like the recent lead-in-water scare or exposes of his acceptance of interests, Leung will have to pay the price.

I have known Tsang for more than four decades and worked with him in the government for six years with my office located right next door to his.

He does not have the kind of tact or sophistication seen in his old brother Jasper Tsang Yok-sing. Instead, he is straightforward and forthright.

As a leftist, he is obliged to state that he is “glad to retire” as he must do whatever Beijing mandates.

But I suspect that, having dedicated most of his life to the party and communism, he must have some unspoken rancor with the stab in the back and humiliation that he has been subjected to under Beijing’s watch.

Tung Chee-hwa was asked to step down with Beijing’s compensation of a deputy chairmanship in China’s top political advisory body, but given Tsang’s personality, will he be appeased with similar political perks?

“You love the party, but does the party love you?” This is the question that I will surely ask Tsang next time when I meet him.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 23.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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The home page of the Home Affairs Bureau with its new boss Lau Kong-hwa. Photo: GovHK

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal