Congratulations to John Tsang Chun-wah, who in his nine years as Hong Kong’s finance chief could not forecast an accurate budget and whose biggest idea during that time was to put 16 overpriced food trucks on our already overcrowded streets.

Five dumplings for HK$40? No thanks.

John Tsang. Photo: Facebook.

And yet, according to recent opinion polls, by a double-digit margin this is our city’s most popular choice to become the next chief executive. How did a man of such demonstrably limited accomplishment and ability become the people’s choice to save Hong Kong from the suffocating grip of the central government on the one hand and the chaotic fantasies of localists on the other?

Tsang, 65, may not have many highlights to boast about in his 35 years as a Hong Kong bureaucrat, but he has shown an astute feel for the changing political pulse of the city. Indeed, although he only recently announced his candidacy to be Hong Kong’s next leader, he has spent the past year using his weekly blog, Facebook page and public utterances to create a softer, more pro-Hong Kong image than his former boss and current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, widely perceived as a Beijing puppet who as a matter of course puts the interests of the Chinese leadership ahead of those of the 7.3 million people who live here.

For God’s sake, Leung wouldn’t even go so far as to support the city’s football team in its World Cup qualifying matches against China, making it look like Tsang was bravely defying the powers-that-be in Beijing by openly cheering for the local squad.

Hong Kong football fans. File photo: Hong Kong Premier League via Facebook.

That hardly makes Tsang a political genius, but Leung’s tone-deaf response to the people he is supposed to serve has allowed the man once dubbed “Mr. Pringles” (due to his uncanny resemblance to the famous crisp mascot) to now cast himself, by comparison to Leung, as Mr. Everyman, even if that perception is light years from the truth. Mr. Everyman, for example, does not define the middle class as people who, like himself, drink coffee, enjoy French movies and (before his December resignation as finance secretary) earned HK$319,000 a month.

Talk about tone deaf—but, again, five years of comparisons with the reviled CY have inevitably redounded to Tsang’s favour. Vis-a-vis his foremost rival in the CE election—former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who remained lockstep loyal to Leung during her nearly five years as the city’s No. 2 official—Tsang also appears as the populist more in tune with the hopes and dreams of ordinary Hong Kong people while Lam is Beijing’s new chosen one denounced by a growing army of critics as CY 2.0.

This newly minted Tsang image is tempting pan-democrats, who have traditionally condemned the small-circle CE election as a farce and run a protest candidate of their own, to throw their support behind Tsang this time around even as one of the more radical and histrionic members of the pan-dem camp, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, contemplates jumping into the contest.

The pan-dems control a quarter (326) of the 1,194 seats on the Election Committee, enough to possibly be a kingmaker in a Lam-Tsang contest but not enough (601) for one of their own to be elected.

Leung Kwok-hung. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

But would pan-dem support for Tsang legitimise a farcical election and undermine the camp’s claim to be the standard bearers for true democracy in the city, as Long Hair claims, or would such a move be a savvy acknowledgement of political reality in a choice between the lesser of two evils?

It should be noted here that Long Hair—who pledges to join the race if he receives nominations from at least one percent (37,790) of the Hong Kong electorate in an ongoing unofficial public nomination campaign—has excoriated his pan-dem colleagues in the past for putting up CE candidates (namely the Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit and the Democratic Party’s Albert Ho Chun-yan) who he maintained lent legitimacy to Beijing’s control of the Election Committee and thus to the undemocratic final result. Now he wants to be that candidate? Go figure.

Anyway, whether Long Hair receives 37,790 nominations or not—and he probably will—it is hard to imagine most pan-dems supporting as a serious CE candidate a man whose political career has itself been largely defined by farce and folderol.

Tsang will continue to court moderate pan-dems with his mildly populist rhetoric while at the same time shoring up his support in the business community. Meanwhile, he is likely to maintain his lead over Lam in public opinion polls as she suffers the double curse of being considered CY’s most loyal underling and Beijing’s golden girl—a lethal public-relations combo in today’s Hong Kong.

Carrie Lam. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

As for the other pro-establishment candidate hoping to lead the city, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee’s campaign has failed to gather enough steam to make her a contender; embarrassingly, in a South China Morning Post survey released last week, public support for the former security tsar even lags behind that of retired judge Woo Kwok-hing, whose quixotic quest has been largely ignored by the movers and shakers in Hong Kong’s business and political circles as well as by much of the public.

That leaves the popular Tsang, the Beijing-anointed Lam and an Election Committee over which, even with its increased pan-dem membership, the central government still exercises sufficient control to assure that its chosen candidate wins.

Will Beijing force Lam on the people of Hong Kong or maybe, just maybe pull back in the interest of restoring some semblance of harmony and stability and allow Tsang to become the city’s fourth chief executive?

And, indeed, if the latter small miracle were to occur, it would need to be followed by a somewhat larger one: Tsang would have to be equal to the task.


Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.