Hong Kong’s three chief executive candidates have directly locked horns in a televised debate for the first time on Tuesday evening.

Much of the attention focused on the battle between former government colleagues John Tsang and Carrie Lam, both of whom resigned in January to run as successor to controversial leader Leung Chun-ying.

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While Tsang is more popular than Lam among the general public, Lam is widely seen as Beijing’s preferred candidate. Numerous allegations have surfaced that the Liaison Office – Beijing’s organ in Hong Kong – has ordered pro-establishment electors to vote for Lam, who critics fear will continue Leung’s hardline political posturing. On March 26, only 1,200 electors will be permitted to cast ballots for Tsang, Lam or retired judge Woo Kwok-hing in the small-circle election.

Here are the most heated moments between Tsang and Lam in Tuesday’s debate:

1. Tsang attacks Lam on public opinion

“If public opinion renders me unsuitable to serve as chief executive, I will resign.”

Lam’s announcement in the beginning of the debate, even before she went head-to-head with Tsang, was one of the most surprising moments of the evening. Incumbent Chief Executive Leung never entertained calls to resign throughout his tenure, even as he became caught up in the UGL controversy, or when Hong Kong went through the 79-day Occupy protests.

Soon, Tsang pounced on the comment.

carrie lam
Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“Recent surveys have shown that your support rating is 30 per cent, and your opposition rating is 45 per cent,” said Tsang. “Would you consider withdrawing your candidacy?”

“Well, I’ve seen a survey where my popularity has climbed,” replied Lam, referring to a poll published by the virtually unknown Hong Kong Research Association. “I’m three [popularity] points above you.”

“You really trust that one?” asked Tsang.

Lam went on to advise her rival that in politics, popularity ratings can rise and fall very rapidly.

2. Lam says she would hire Tsang’s assistant

Lam later attempted to defend her own unpopularity – especially online. She said that Tsang had an “extremely smart political assistant.”

“If I win and you don’t in this election, I’ll ask [him] to join my team,” she added.

john tsang chun-wah
Julian Law (R).

Tsang’s political assistant is Julian Law, a law graduate and former journalist at Ming Pao who has assisted Tsang since 2012, when Tsang was still Hong Kong’s financial secretary.

“My team is very united,” replied Tsang. “My team cannot be bought with money.”

Lam added that she never hired a political assistant during her time in government, in order to save money. Stand News, however, pointed out that this claim was inaccurate: she hired a former i-Cable director to serve as a political assistant between 2012 and 2013.

3. Lam attacks Tsang for slashing government expenditure

During his tenure as financial secretary, Tsang was criticised for constantly underestimating Hong Kong’s annual budget surplus. On Tuesday, Lam criticised another aspect of Tsang’s financial management, claiming that in the past year, every government department was asked to slash internal budgets by 1 per cent – an arrangement known as the “011 scheme.”

john tsang chun-wah
File Photo: StandNews.

In response, Tsang claimed that the “011 scheme” entailed taking 1 per cent of government department surpluses to provide new services. “Every year, 4 or 5 per cent of the budget for each department doesn’t get spent,” he said.

Lam, however, said that government operators of parks and public libraries have expressed concern at the budget cuts. She claimed that they spent over 99 per cent of their budgets, and may have to shorten opening hours or dismiss low-level staff such as bathroom cleaners.

4. ‘CY 2.0’ and ‘Divisiveness 2.0’

Tsang directed his first question of the evening towards Lam. Lam previously claimed to have no interest in becoming chief executive until December 2016, when the incumbent Leung suddenly announced that he would not run for another term.

“You and Leung have a lot in common,” said Tsang. “So many people call you ‘CY 2.0.’ Have you reflected on why people call you ‘CY 2.0’?”

cy leung carrie lam
Leung Chun-ying and Carrie Lam. File photos: Apple Daily.

“Because CY 1.0 is not running,” joked Lam. “So people who need a target to vent their frustrations need a replacement.”

When Lam questioned Tsang about his own candidacy, Tsang asked the debate hosts to turn off her microphone, given that it was his turn to make queries.

“We are not worried about having a ‘CY 2.0,’” said Tsang. “We are worried that if you get elected, society will experience ‘Divisiveness 2.0.’”

5. ‘The angry emojis… have floated up to your nose’

Throughout the evening, Tsang was relentless in attacking Lam on her popularity. After she defended her poor poll ratings, Tsang turned to the internet for ammunition.

“Many people are watching us tonight through Facebook, Facebook live,” he said. “Did you know that the angry emojis under your face are already up to your nose?”

Lam replied that she was an underdog on Facebook, and asked how Tsang had time to build up a large number of Facebook “likes” while he was still in the government.

“It’s not about how much time you use,” responded Tsang. “It’s about… what you represent.”

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.