22 October 2016
Jasper Tsang has been presiding over the Legislative Council since 2008. Photo: HKEJ
Jasper Tsang has been presiding over the Legislative Council since 2008. Photo: HKEJ

Politics unlikely to let Jasper Tsang retire

Retiring Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, a respected patriarch of the city’s leftist clique, is considered by many as the most capable figure in the whole pro-establishment bloc.

He has hinted that he may consider standing for the 2017 chief executive election if “no one else is running”, apparently intent on making it a genuine race rather than a cosmetic one between a hand-picked candidate and an also-ran.

Tsang got several high-profile interviews after the Legco prorogued last month, and each time he was asked if he was eyeing for the city’s top job.

Tsang said he is planning to set up a think tank for policy recommendations to the government. One reason is to groom political talent.

“Also, no matter if it’s Carrie Lam or John Tsang, a candidate needs an election platform, a manifesto. My think tank can help these candidates,” he said.

Asked if it’s better to run himself, he laughed. “Good idea! I may think about it.”

A faithful leftist

In a café near the Legco complex in Tamar, Tsang told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that a trip to Guangzhou 50 years ago turned him into a leftist.

In 1966, the then 19-year-old University of Hong Kong mathematics sophomore traveled north to Guangzhou to visit relatives.

That trip to his birthplace turned out to be an eye-opening experience: “That was before Mao Zedong (毛澤東) kick-started the Cultural Revolution and the people and society as a whole were all in genuine harmony there,” he said, “I also developed a very positive view about Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.”

Yet a year later Hong Kong was engulfed in deep tumult as the class struggle that ravaged the Communist republic began to spill across the border.

Tsang’s younger brother Tsang Tak-sing, who later served as secretary for home affairs from 2007 to 2015, was jailed by the colonial authorities in the wake of the riot for handing out pro-Communist leaflets at St. Paul’s College.

“The education system aims at enslavement,” said the younger Tsang, who spent two years in Stanley Prison.

While his brother was serving his sentence, Tsang’s contact with other local leftists intensified.

He gave up the chance to go to the United States for further studies after graduating from HKU with first honors in 1968, and joined the Pui Kiu Middle School, a well-known pro-Communist school and a leftist stronghold in North Point.

At Pui Kiu, Tsang taught maths with a salary of HK$600, less than half the HK$1,466 he used to get as a teaching assistant at HKU, but the measly pay never bothered the young revolutionary.

Even when the mainland plunged into an abyss of chaos and his uncle in Guangzhou jumped to death after the family was torn asunder, Tsang remained faithful to the party’s ideology.

He believed that all these represented the costs of a revolution, until after Mao’s death in 1976 and the “Gang of Four” was repudiated.

Following the end of the Cultural Revolution, many of his comrades abandoned the pro-Communist camp, but Tsang chose to stay at Pui Kiu.

In view of what had happened in the city and China, the leftist ideology acquired a seedy reputation.

Eventually, Tsang’s loyalty to the party prompted many of his friends and relatives to stay away from him.

A little over a decade later, Hong Kong people’s view of China started to improve as Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) ushered in economic reforms, but the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was another heavy blow to leftists in the city.

Again, Tsang decided to stay in the pro-Beijing camp, and became Pui Kiu’s headmaster.

All pro-Beijing candidates suffered a crushing rout in the first-ever direct Legco election two years later and that prompted them to reorganize and set up a political party for future elections.

That was how the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong was founded in 1992, and Tsang became its founding chairman.

Tsang first ran in the Legco election in 1995, seeking to represent the central Kowloon constituency, but lost.

However, he became a member of the Provisional Legco, the city’s interim legislature, from 1997 to 1998.

Ups and downs of cross-border ties

To some extent, his strong leftist upbringing was no longer seen in an unflattering light after the 1997 handover.

“I remember one voter told me during an election campaign that it’s OK to be pro-Beijing but you should not be the Tung Chee-hwa government’s rubber stamp.

“I realized back then that even though Hongkongers were dismayed by the Tung administration’s many blunders from bird flu to “negative equity”, people still had a generally positive view of the central authorities.”

But the first crisis struck in the summer of 2003 when Tung’s push for the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, along with what was perceived as his administration’s slow response to the SARS epidemic, drove half a million people to the streets on July 1.

Tsang stepped down as the DAB chairman after his party’s drubbing in the district council elections late that year.

Cross-border relations, which picked up in 2008, deteriorated again in 2012 as mass protests greeted the government’s plan to launch National Education in schools. In 2014, pro-democracy groups staged the 79-day Occupy Movement.

Now, 19 years into the history of the special administrative region under Beijing’s rule, separatism and calls for Hong Kong independence have almost become the most vocal chorus of the young. 

Many of these youthful activists, who openly declare their opposition to the central authorities and the Chinese Communist Party, are seeking seats in next month’s Legco election.

But Tsang has a word for them: “One country, two systems is a policy from the Communist Party that rules the mainland and once you enter the Legco chamber, you are a part of the establishment. If you want to split or overthrow the party, you are pro-revolution and you should not run in the Legco elections.”

Again, he refused to answer if he himself is a party member. “Some Hongkongers’ phobia about Communism is deep-seated and it won’t fade with the march of time.”

On the 2017 CE race

In a newspaper column, Tsang described Leung Chun-ying as “hugely cunning”, constantly dodging questions about whether he will seek a second term and saying only that he will make a decision after September.

“If he wants my support, then he needs to change the way he governs.”

Leung was once approached by a journalist but dropped the latter’s name card into a trash bin right in front of the journalist, saying he saw no need to contact the media, Tsang revealed.

“I’ve known Leung for decades but he didn’t invite me to dinner at his home until 2011 when he started preparing for the election.”

Financial Secretary John Tsang also indicated he may run, and Jasper Tsang said on Facebook that he would be happy to back him.

“He may need to win more trust from Beijing and the local loyalists, and one way to do that is to have an old-line leftist in his team.

“Still, for now, you won’t get any message from Beijing. I believe the top leadership in Zhongnanhai would still like to wait and see until after the Legco elections.”

This is an adaptation of three separate articles that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 1 and 2.

Grace Kong and Kimmy Chung contributed to these articles.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 1, 2, 3 中文版]

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Read more:

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Lawmakers pose for a group picture after Legco prorogued on July 16. Photo: HKEJ

Tsang said he may run for Hong Kong’s top office "if no one else is running". Photo: HKEJ

Tsang (center) was a founding member of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city’s largest pro-Beijing party. Photo: HKEJ

Tsang speaks to students on a tour of the Legco complex. Tsang plans to set up a think tank, saying that "Hong Kong still lacks political talent". Photo: HKEJ

Tsang (center) in a light moment with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) at a Legco banquet. He described Leung as "hugely cunning". Photo: HKEJ

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