Lawyer and ex-lawmaker Ronny Tong has been accused of favouring former chief secretary Carrie Lam at Sunday’s chief executive election debate, which was organised by Tong’s think tank Path of Democracy.

Only Lam and former judge Woo Kwok-hing attended the debate. A third candidate, ex-finance chief John Tsang, declined the invitation on the basis that he wanted to give priority to forums hosted by media. But local media reported that the real reason was Tong is considered a supporter of Lam.

Chief executive debate, organised by Ronny Tong’s think tank. , via Facebook.

Apple Daily reported that there were some raised eyebrows among pro-democracy electors when Lam said she and Tong shared similar ideas. She said: “I finally get why a candidate refused to attend this debate, it is because Tong and I have more or less the same view on public finance. I have a lot of reservations with various funds such as the Future Fund.”

In another round of questioning, Tong, the moderator, asked Woo: “You have used extreme language to attack your rivals. If you become chief executive, do you think your attitude will help mend social division?”

After Woo said he was only speaking the truth and not attacking anyone, Tong said he did not answer the question. Woo replied: “Mrs Lam is Mr Leung Chun-ying’s right-hand person and played a role in causing the social divisions we see today.”

Woo Kwok-hing. , via Facebook.

“The Occupy protests [in 2014] took place because the voice of young people was not acknowledged. It was heard, but not acknowledged. They are dissatisfied and this deepens their distrust in the central government. Lam must be held accountable.”

Tong said Woo was still not answering his question: “My question is – your rival [Lam] has secured hundreds of votes from the pro-establishment camp. Do you have the will to persuade the pro-establishment camp in order to mend the rift?”

Woo replied: “Yes, I do. I think everyone can see that. My platform takes the middle ground after meeting with various groups. Maybe people don’t trust your proposal, but it’s different to mine.”

Tong’s group Path of Democracy fielded two candidates in last year’s Legislative Council election. They branded themselves as offering a “third path” – as opposed to the traditional pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps – but were defeated by a large margin in the election. Woo’s response received applause from the audience.

The audience clapped at Woo’s response to Tong. , via Facebook.

Online commenters watching the livestream questioned why Tong targeted Woo while appearing soft on Lam. “It is too obvious that Tong favours Lam,” a person wrote. Another said: “Tong is such a shoe-shiner. You won’t get the job of justice secretary.”

Tong denied the allegation. He told HK01 that he was “equally critical” towards the two candidates. He said that supporters of each side would likely think he was tough on their favourite candidate.

Student suicide

Another highlight of the debate was a question on student stress raised with Lam by another moderator, Tse Chi-fung – a veteran journalist and former host of RTHK’s weekly City Forum.

Tse asked what Lam would do to reduce the rate of student suicides if she took office. Lam said she would set up a children’s affairs committee to review the difficulties and concerns of students, while providing a “caring environment” for them.

Tse questioned Lam: “You were a government official for 30-plus years, and you still don’t know the causes of the stress students face?”

Lam responded that students face stress every day, and the key is for adults to be aware of their words and conduct. After signaling the end of Lam’s round, Tse said: “I need to add one thing: Students are stressed because they are given too much homework.”

CY Leung 2.0

During the debate, Lam said no one believes she is “CY Leung 2.0” – a term used by critics who believe Lam would continue Leung’s governance style and policies. Lam said she and Leung are very different: “He is a man; I am a woman.”

Carrie Lam. , via Facebook.

The former Hong Kong no.2 official focused on her finance policies and Woo’s lack of experience in public administration. In response, Woo said senior officials and chief executives have become less accountable to the public, and that a leader with the “right mindset” is what Hong Kong needs the most.

He further criticised Lam for her “imperious” manner in pushing for public policies, such as the Palace Museum controversy and the demolition of the Queen’s Pier. He added that the premise of “connect” – Lam’s slogan – is “respect.”

The small-circle chief executive election is scheduled for March 26.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.