Timothy Peirson-Smith: Behold the Hong Kong Game of Thrones

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The nomination period for Chief Executive candidacy ended on 1st March. To become a candidate, one must have presented at least 150 valid nominations from 1,194 members of the election committee. In a public process where everyone knows who supported who, John Tsang submitted first with 165 valid nominations, followed by Justice Woo Kwok-hing’s 180, and lastly, Carrie Lam handed in 580 valid nominations. Tellingly, there were 269 abstentions. Another presumptive candidate Regina Ip pulled out of the race without securing enough nominations. In the next stage, our future chief executive must receive 601 or more votes to be elected, and the election will be held by secret ballot, which may even create an interesting twist.

All three candidates have a wealth of experience in public service. Both Lam and Tsang joined the government in the 1980s as administrative officers and served for more than 30 years; Woo served in the Judiciary as a judge for 24 years. The two civil service highflyers took different paths, with Lam focusing on formulating social and public policies. With such experience, the public is dubious about her understanding of the financial and monetary affairs and fears her promise to squander Hong Kong’s hard-earned $860 billion fiscal reserves to secure popularity and votes.

However, Tsang faces public criticism for underestimating Hong Kong’s financial surplus in the last 8 consecutive budgets and for being unaware of Hong Kong’s social problems. Tsang also has been criticised by some as over-optimistic by aiming to shelter 60% of household in public housing and by dreaming to think he can restart constitutional reform and Article 23, which Lam has simply sidestepped. On the other hand, Woo is questioned regarding his administrative competence and his interpersonal network to form a cabinet. Importantly, and possibly terminally, Woo has only agreed to stand for one term and the chance of him healing Hong Kong’s divisions in 5 years seems a Herculanean task.

Lest we forget the reason for Tsang’s popularity as Financial Secretary, it is considerably attributed to his distance from major political turbulence during Donald Tsang’s and CY Leung’s administrations. From the demolition of Star Ferry Piers in 2006, the national education saga 2012, and Occupy Central in 2014 to the most recent Palace Museum corporate governance oversight, Lam was at the frontline to defend unpopular governments with great toughness. This has granted Lam more opportunities to show political competence and allegiance to Beijing. But to the public and the business community, a chief executive must not compromise the integrity of Hong Kong’s institutions and systems for easy governance.

In terms of priorities facing Hong Kong, our medium-term competitiveness is today under threat from Shanghai, Singapore, Shenzhen and other Asian aspirants. Regrettably, I see no overarching strategy to connect disparate policies scattered in various fields in order to ensure Hong Kong remains the best place to live, rest, work and play in Asia from any of the three candidates’ platforms.

That said, an inclusive government is the manifesto mantra echoed by all three candidates. However, both Lam and Woo reached the threshold for candidacy relying solely on the support of either the Pro-Beijing or non-establishment camp, respectively. Uniquely, Tsang seized his candidacy by bipartisan support: 38 from Pro-Beijing and 127 from the non-establishment, in a rare occasion when such a large number of the non-establishment politicians support an ostensibly pro-establishment candidate. Also, Tsang raised HK$5.1 million from crowdfunding from around 26,000 supporters, a popularity contest master stroke that will not go unnoticed to the Chinese Central Government. Thus, some suggest that Tsang is in an advantageous role to facilitate cooperation between the executive and the legislature, and even to facilitate party politics in Hong Kong by opening senior government positions, and even his cabinet to politicians across the aisle. Still, it is hard to tell whether he is so nominated because of his statecraft or the sympathy to him as the avuncular underdog.

Even in a scenario where Tsang takes all 339 votes from the non-establishment and keeps all of his 38 Pro-Beijing nominees, he still needs to find at least 224 votes from the abstainers and wrestling votes from Lam’s and Woo’s nominees, which is considered by many as unlikely to happen. Worst still, Woo may conversely even draw away some of Tsang’s non-establishment votes in the secret ballot. Therefore, from this perspective, Lam must be the favourite to be the next Chief Executive, although whether Lam will exceed CY Leung’s 689 election committee votes won in 2012 must be questionable.

That said, the uncertainties of a secret ballot have been well reflected by Trump’s electoral victory and the Brexit referendum result. Thus, living in the land of quinella, tierce, trio and quartet, one can never deny the outside chance of Tsang scraping 601 votes. Were that to become a reality, then that will be when the fun truly begins.


Executive Counsel Limited is a business advisory and corporate governance consultancy. For enquiries, please contact Timothy J. Peirson-Smith, the Managing Director, via email at tjps@execounsel.com or by phone on +852 2550 0879.

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[starbox desc=”Timothy J Peirson-Smith

Timothy Peirson-Smith is the founder of Executive Counsel and an astute observer of the Hong Kong political scene and chairman of the Business Policy Unit of The British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.“]