Will the cash handout lift Paul Chan's chances to snag top job?

February 28, 2020 16:34
Financial Secretary Paul Chan speaks at a press conference on Wednesday after delivering his annual budget speech. A cash handout to citizens has led to Chan’s popularity rating improve significantly, boosting his political prospects. Photo: HKEJ

Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po saw his popularity rating get a boost on Wednesday as he announced in his budget speech a HK$10,000 cash handout to all adult Hong Kong permanent residents.

Following the move, Liberal Party leader Felix Chung Kwok-pan has described the budget as "Chan’s own Policy Address", making reference to the annual policy speech of Hong Kong's chief executive.

And even the pan-dems have been pulling their punches, something that we see very rarely in the local political landscape.

Seen by some observers as a "dark horse" for Hong Kong's top job when the time comes for Beijing to put in place a new leader for the special administrative region, Chan, at a presser Wednesday, twice refused to give a straight answer to questions from the media as to whether he is trying to smoothen his path for the CE contest by trying to win over the public with a cash handout.

While he dodged the question, he didn’t say "no" to it in no uncertain terms either, fueling speculation among the political circles whether the chief executive race has already kicked off ahead of schedule.

Leaving aside the chatter, the truth is, as a seasoned leftist figure has pointed out, it is still premature to discuss the possibility of a "chief executive change” at this stage.

The reason is that as the upcoming Legislative Council election in September is an important battle, and the central authorities are deeply concerned about the prospect of the pan-dems winning the majority of seats in the legislature, it is quite unlikely that Beijing would remove Lam from office during the run-up to this crucial battle.

As far as Chan’s rising popularity as a result of his generous cash handout is concerned, the leftist figure said it would definitely have positive implications for the finance chief's political prospects.

That said, he predicted that there might be some key personnel changes in the government after the Legco election, when things have returned to calmness.

The leftist figure then went on to say that there are still uncertainties over whether Chan can truly “pocket” all the brownie points he has earned this time with his budget.

It is because if he messes things up again in the course of executing the cash handouts like he did with the HK$4,000 cash subsidies back in 2018, and fails to deliver the money to eligible citizens before the Legco summer break as scheduled, he will come under fire from both the pro-establishment and the pan-democratic camps.

Worse still, if anything goes wrong with the cash handouts and results in delays, it will undermine the election prospects of the pro-establishment bloc.

As such, the task of handing out the HK$10,000 to the public smoothly and according to schedule is seen as a sort of "mid-term exam" for the finance chief, the person added.

Meanwhile, apart from having to make sure that everything with the cash handouts is on course and on schedule, Chan may be facing another, even more daunting, task in the coming days: how to minimize the fiscal deficits of the government.

According to a government source, the government could effectively record a fiscal deficit of as much as HK$180.5 billion in the next financial year.

If the budget deficits continue to soar like that, Beijing can hardly feel comfortable about promoting Chan to higher public office even if he is popular among the citizens of Hong Kong.

On the other hand, judging from the opinions of a number of business figures, quite a lot of them aren’t bothered by the record-high government deficits in Chan’s Budget, as they believe the economic cycle will eventually a witness a turnaround one day.

Yet, as to whether they are in favor of the finance chief seeking higher public office, the prevailing view is that the biggest hurdle isn’t his ability to manage public finance, but rather, his relationship with former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, whose take-no-prisoners style of governance is haunting the business community even to this day.

Another business figure also said bluntly that they dare not root for Chan in a high-profile manner even if they agreed that he is a better choice for the chief executive office than incumbent Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, because it might turn out to be the “kiss of death” for Chan and touch Beijing’s nerve.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 27

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.