27 October 2016
John Tsang comes across as a healer of Hong Kong's social divisions. He has been a welcome sight every time he delivers his annual budget as happened on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters
John Tsang comes across as a healer of Hong Kong's social divisions. He has been a welcome sight every time he delivers his annual budget as happened on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters

John Tsang, not CY Leung, is healing Hong Kong

Hong Kong has been ailing for many years and the Lunar New Year’s Day violence in Mong Kok only added to its pain.

But while Hong Kong people have been waiting for comfort and healing from their leader, they have hardly gotten any.

Which is why the annual budget has been a kind of catharsis for them because of its potential to lift their spirits, if not ease their suffering.

In that sense, Financial Secretary John Tsang is a welcome sight each time he delivers his budget.

On Wednesday, Tsang announced his ninth budget, using the occasion to weigh in on the Mong Kok clashes which erupted after protesters fought with policemen trying to clear the streets of illegal hawkers.

Tsang implicitly broke with the government by not using “riot”, the official description of the clashes, instead calling them a “serious unlawful incident”.

Anyone can argue that this distinction makes no difference but it does come in stark contrast to Leung Chun-ying’s characterization of the incident just moments after it happened.

Tsang showed empathy for the real feelings of Hong Kong people by expressing his own distress and anger over the violence.

Does that make him a better person than his peers in the government, CY Leung included?

Probably not, but that makes him a little more circumspect as a public servant in addressing a highly emotive social issue.

Like most Hong Kong people, Tsang was “shocked” that our fair city had been turned overnight into a “strange and alien place” he could hardly recognize.

But instead of joining the official chorus of labels, he subtly delved into what might have caused the incident.

That’s the reason he inserted this in his budget: “It’s the duty of the government to take on challenges in our society”.

He said the government must bear responsibility for the widening social divide.

Thus, he became the first principal official to own up to that responsibility in regard to the Mong Kok violence, saying “all people, not only me, not only the chief executive, have the responsibility for the outbreak of the clashes”.

Tsang did all this above and beyond his duty as finance minister. He offered himself as a healer.

Critics might dismiss this as part of a supposed power struggle between Leung and Tsang for Beijing’s blessing in the run-up to next year’s chief executive election in which the former is expected to run.

Tsang himself has not indicated his intentions one way or the other.

But if anything, his comments could have cost him some brownie points with senior Beijing officials who have praised Leung’s handling of the protests.

Leung and his pro-Beijing allies have filled the air with condemnation in the three weeks after the violence but there has been little in the way of an inquiry into its causes.

A proposal to set up an independent investigation committee was shot down by the establishment-heavy Legislative Council this week.

After officially categorizing the incident as a riot, the government considers the matter closed. 

But Tsang understands there has to be more to it than the government is willing to concede.

In his budget speech, he quoted US President John F. Kennedy to make his point: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man.”

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EJ Insight writer

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