27 October 2016
Financial Secretary John Tsang explains his side on the Wang Chau housing controversy while Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying looks on. Photo: HKEJ
Financial Secretary John Tsang explains his side on the Wang Chau housing controversy while Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying looks on. Photo: HKEJ

It’s not enough for John Tsang to wash his hands

Those who had expected a no-holds-barred confrontation between Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah and his boss, the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, on Wednesday must have been mightily disappointed.

In the press conference called by Leung to shed light on the Wang Chau public housing project in Yuen Long, the two officials, like true gentlemen, maintained their decorum and avoided quarreling with each other in front of the cameras.

There were no fisticuffs or shouting matches, but the episode did not lack drama.

As the conference progressed, it was quite clear that Tsang felt aggrieved and had no intention of accepting the role of a fall guy in the sorry affair. 

He didn’t talk much, but the expression on his face said it all: “It’s not my business”, “I was an outsider”, “It’s his [Leung's] trouble, not mine”.

Several internet users screencapped Tsang’s facial expressions, including the one where he was glaring at Leung.

It was enough that in his opening remarks Tsang stressed that he did not attend the first meeting of the Wang Chau task force as he was out of town at the time.

He also explained that his duty as chairman of the steering committee on land supply, a position he still holds, is to ensure that the Wang Chau project contributes to the fulfillment of the government’s long-term objective of ensuring enough land for housing development.

As such, it is his responsibility to see to it that the project will achieve its target of building 17,000 public housing units.

And as such, whether the project should be scaled down due to pressure from rural leaders was clearly a decision to be made by Leung, not Tsang.

We find it strange that Leung’s spin doctors – OK, advisers or the Chief Executive Office – would want to make it appear that Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung and Tsang jointly agreed on the decision to bring down the size of the Wang Chau development to 4,000 units.

Apparently, their aim was to ease the pressure on Leung for making such a decision, which proved controversial.

In the end, Leung admitted at the press conference that he had made the decision, saying that it is practical to build in phases, starting in a greenbelt area where there are three non-indigenous villages, instead of the larger brownfield sites, whose development is being opposed by some rural leaders.

But the move to drag three other officials into the controversy only shows that Leung lacks the confidence to convince the public that his decision was in the best interest of Hong Kong people.

It only added to the controversy surrounding the entire project.

During the press conference, Tsang seldom responded to questions from the media.

One journalist asked him whether his statement issued on Monday was meant to confront his boss.

His response: “You asked me if I agree with my boss. You always agree with your boss. No question about that.”

He did not directly answer the journalist’s question and let the media interpret what he meant by that.

His answer, in fact, leads to another question: “Who is the boss?”

In the Hong Kong government hierarchy, Tsang’s boss is CY Leung. But his appointment, though based on the chief executive’s recommendation, was made by the State Council.

So, theoretically, his boss is Premier Li Keqiang who chairs China’s cabinet.

But while Tsang appears to be supporting Leung, he wants to make it clear that he is not responsible for any of the mess that the controversy has generated.

Leung, on the other hand, was smiling often, while trying to impress upon the public the difficulties the government faced in implementing the project.

At the end of the media conference, he turned emotional, choking and teary-eyed as he begged for a little appreciation of his efforts in boosting public housing supply.

That’s obviously part of the script: a soft, emotional defense against the brickbats coming not only from the opposition but also from some pro-Beijing media in recent weeks.

More than 14,000 Facebook users were watching the live streaming of the press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

But in the end, there were more questions than answers.

For example, why did the government decide to scale down the housing units to 4,000 only after a non-official meeting with rural leaders? Why was there no record of that meeting?

The Wang Chau public housing development is not the only controversial infrastructure project under the CY Leung administration.

There are other, much more expensive white elephants like the high-speed rail link and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge, which are being pursued despite widespread opposition.

The Wang Chau clearly shows the lack of transparency in the current government set-up.

As a veteran civil servant, it’s not enough for Tsang to distance himself from the controversy. It is his duty to remind his boss to follow the rules.

Otherwise, more projects will be implemented under the table, more government policies will be pursued without proper consultation.

After all, if he wants to run against his boss for chief executive next year, he needs to prove that he is made of sterner stuff.

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EJ Insight writer

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