Could Tsang v Lam shape up as elites v the people in Hong Kong chief executive battle?

by Gary Cheung / January 16, 2018 /Scmp

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and John Tsang Chun-wah may share a similar career trajectory of having spent decades in government service, but they are hardly cut from the same ideological cloth.

If Tsang throws his hat into the ring in the coming days and runs for chief executive, their approaches to social issues, a fast emerging difference between the two, could be the defining feature of their election battle.

Tsang, who joined the government in 1982, is a firmer believer in “big market, small government” and favours minimal government intervention.

But Lam, who joined the administration two years earlier after graduating from the University of Hong Kong, has sought to highlight the need to support the disadvantaged and to promote balanced development, given the city’s widening income inequality and hefty fiscal surplus.

The difference in their governing philosophy has given rise to a perception that Tsang is backed by the city’s elites and favours the status quo, while Lam is supported by people who favour a proactive approach to tackling social ills. While they may naturally appeal to such constituencies, academics warn against portraying the pair as representing exclusively the interests of opposing social classes or blocs. The candidates themselves are going to some lengths not to be painted into one corner, with Lam stressing she is not a socialist and Tsang uploading pictures of himself bonding with ordinary people.

As financial secretary, Tsang managed large budget surpluses but was widely viewed as too conservative in how public money was spent. He had argued that the bigger the fiscal reserves the government amassed, the better.

In 2013 Tsang appointed economic analysts and academics to study the impact of the ageing population on public finances, which are subject to land revenue fluctuations and rely increasingly on salaries and profits tax.

The report by the Long Term Fiscal Planning Working Group, released in March 2014, warned Hong Kong could be as heavily indebted as Greece – facing a structural deficit of HK$1.54 trillion by 2041 – if spending grew at the current pace and nothing was done to mitigate the impact of an ageing population.

At a closed-door seminar attended by senior government officials at the Science Park last Thursday, Lam spoke in stark contrast of the need to support the disadvantaged and to promote balanced development and an inclusive society.

In her swan-song speech as chief secretary, she said the ageing population should not be seen as a problem because “nowadays many elderly people are better educated and they may not rely on welfare payments in future”.

At a closed-door dinner on December 13, Lam, formerly chairwoman of the Commission on Poverty, described the fiscal planning report as unfair to the elderly.

Lam raised eyebrows last year by acknowledging three “mountains” or contentious issues the government aimed to conquer.

She identified these as the controversial management of public housing malls by The Link Reit, repeated MTR fare increases and the offsetting mechanism of the Mandatory Provident Fund, which allows bosses to settle severance or long-service payments through worker contributions. Read more…

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