John Tsang, one of the three candidates in Hong Kong’s chief executive election, has vowed to be a fence-mender as he sought support from both ends of the political spectrum.
Many Hongkongers have a favorable view of the former financial secretary, as evidenced in several opinion polls which have put Tsang at the top of the popularity charts in comparison to the other CE contenders — former chief secretary Carrie Lam and retired High Court judge Woo Kwok-hing.
The broad popular appeal of Tsang, who bears the nickname “Mr. Pringles” thanks to his resemblance to the potato chips mascot, is largely the result of deft image management by a team of social media-savvy aides, as well as the backing of a section of the media.
Led by Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily, supporters of the pan-democrat camp have lost no time whipping up sentiments in favor of Tsang, despite the fact that the former finance chief was very much a part of the establishment until recently.
The supporters have gone to great lengths to portray a grim future for Hong Kong in the event that Tsang’s chief rival in the CE race — Lam — gets anointed to the top post in the March 26 election.
As we have seen, a key element of the strategy has been to run down Lam, highlighting her record of arbitrariness in governance and obsequiousness to Beijing during her time as the No. 2 official of the city.
The pan-democrats are supporting Tsang even though not many people have a clear picture as to how he will govern if he manages to knock out Lam and Woo.
It is an uncomfortable reality, given that Tsang’s own track record in the government has been less than stellar.
Now, one can ask this question: what did Tsang really achieve during his time as the city’s financial secretary for more than nine years?
Tsang the miser
No one can say exactly what Tsang had done, but almost all will remember the fact that throughout his nine years as Hong Kong’s CFO he constantly miscalculated the government books, in particular the fiscal surplus.
Six times he cried wolf that the government’s balance sheet would sink into the red, yet that never happened. For instance, in his budget for financial year 2010/11, Tsang warned of a deficit of HK$25.2 billion but as it turned out, the government actually recorded a whopping surplus of HK$75.1 billion during the year.
Overall, Tsang’s total misestimates during his tenure amounted to no less than HK$460 billion.
While he can be forgiven sometimes for poor arithmetic as he was no expert in finance when he took over the post – Tsang majored in architecture while in college — there is still the question of how he got his numbers way off consistently.
The finance chief also didn’t know how to put to use a huge fiscal reserve, which reached almost HK$860 billion (US$110.89 billion) at the end of last March, excluding HK$74 billion set aside for public housing development, a revenue windfall equivalent to 24 months of government expenditure.
Hong Kong has never been on such a strong fiscal standing, but Tsang was a scrooge who wasn’t too enamored of investing for the underprivileged and for the future of the society.
Rather, even as Hong Kong is far from any rainy day given the sheer size of its reserves, Tsang had in 2014 proposed austerity measures that mandated all government departments to trim recurrent costs by no less than 2 percent within a short span of three financial years.
The moneyed class may have hardly felt it, but the city’s ordinary folk have borne the brunt of Tsang’s moves to scale back government spending.
Due to reined-in expenditure, the city has seen some public services taking a hit. For instance, the average waiting time for specialist out-patient services at public hospitals is now over 50 weeks, and it’s a similar case for those applying for subsidized long-term elderly care services.
Schools get fewer funding, public libraries have had to shorten opening hours and even the frequency of routine street cleaning operations had to be slashed, thanks to Tsang’s whimsical spending cuts.
Tsang may have been an example of the laissez-faire philosophy, but for all the wrong reasons. A finance chief who is dismissive of the demands of the less-privileged and refused to give more other than some minor, one-off handouts may not be what Hong Kong needs, giving the growing wealth disparities and rising elderly population.
Tsang could have done a better job to ensure fairer use of the revenue pie. It is all the more so, as unlike counterparts in other economies, he didn’t have to bother about setting aside a large chunk of funds for national defense or diplomacy.
He had all the resources to do a lot of good to ensure the well-being of the average Hongkongers, but sadly he chose to be a miser.
Among other issues, Tsang cannot absolve himself of the blame for Hong Kong’s ever worsening shortage in housing.
As chairman of the Steering Committee on Land Supply, Tsang had a responsibility to coordinate land supply and make adjustments in response to changes in demand.
The Development Bureau, the linchpin of government’s hunt for land, was within his realm of duty as well.
But, as some media reports pointed out, Tsang didn’t convene a single meeting of the land supply committee during an eight-month period last year.
There has been talk of differences between Tsang and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying over land issues, but people are not really interested in excuses or hearing top officials passing the buck to each other.
As chairman of the land supply steering committee, Tsang showed little courage as he failed to stand up to rural chieftains and vested interests and rezone vast, derelict brownfield sites for housing, nor did he show any resolve to prod developers and urge them not to horde land plots.
During city debates on resolving the housing stalemate, Tsang was missing in action most of the time.
He seldom went beyond his comfort zone or visited those who dwell in subdivided flats or even cage homes to see for himself the ordeal of Hongkongers on the bottom rung of the housing ladder.
Tsang’s manifesto does contain a bold suggestion to provide public housing to 60 percent of the entire population, but there are no details on how he intends to achieve the goal, which now looks more like an electioneering stunt.
The government coffers kept swelling throughout Tsang’s tenure, but the former finance chief, overly punctilious with the numbers, sat idly by and watched Hong Kong’s poverty and housing woes become almost intractable.
This is something that the CE hopeful’s supporters need to bear in mind.
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