Hong Kong’s Finance Chief Resigns, Signaling Run at Top Job

  • John Tsang has the highest approval ratings among officials
  • Carrie Lam, Leung’s top deputy, also seen as contender

John Tsang.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Hong Kong’s financial chief John Tsang resigned, signaling that he’ll run to become the city’s chief executive in the first leadership contest since mass pro-democracy protests two years ago.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Monday that he received Tsang’s resignation and submitted it to authorities in Beijing. Tsang, whose office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, planned to address the media at 6:30 p.m. local time. K C Chan, secretary for financial services and the treasury, will be acting financial secretary when Tsang goes on leave Tuesday, the statement said.

John Tsang

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

Leung unexpectedly announced last week that he wouldn’t seek a second term because of pressure on his family. His departure cleared the field for rivals who might have been reluctant to challenge the incumbent chief executive in March, when a committee of political insiders meets to select his successor.

Leung’s tenure has been marred by escalating protests against China’s stewardship over the Asian financial hub, which guaranteed independent courts and a free press under a “one country, two systems” framework. In recent weeks, Leung outraged democracy advocates by successfully suing to oust two elected pro-independence advocates from the city’s legislature and moving to purge four more in a campaign supported by Beijing.

Tsang, 65, has served as finance secretary since 2007. He has long enjoyed the highest approval ratings among the city’s top officials, scoring 63.1 out of 100 according to a Dec. 7 survey by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program. 

‘Common Ground’

In recent comments on his blog, Tsang said values such as freedom, openness, diversity and rule of law were the foundation of Hong Kong’s success and should be defended. He called on Hongkongers to bridge escalating social and political divisions.

“If we have a peaceful atmosphere and a harmonious environment, we can seek common ground while reserving differences on the basis of mutual trust and honesty,” he wrote.

The chief executive will be selected by a committee of 1,200 electors, who themselves were elected from various industries and interest groups on Sunday. Pro-democracy groups won a quarter of the seats -- a record amount -- with the remainder going to pro-establishment candidates, according to the South China Morning Post. The winner of the chief executive election in March will be subject to approval by the National People’s Congress in China.

Other potential candidates include Carrie Lam, Leung’s chief deputy, who said Saturday she would reconsider her decision to retire when her current term ends in June. Her office wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Regina Ip, a lawmaker who more than a decade ago led a failed effort to pass a strict national security law, is expected to announce her candidacy Thursday. Former judge Woo Kwok-hing, 70, threw his hat into the ring in October.

‘China’s Favorite’

Lam actively campaigned to get China’s electoral reform package through the Legislative Council in 2014, a move that would’ve earned her goodwill in Beijing despite its failure to pass, according to Danny Gittings, an associate law professor at HKU Space and author of “Introduction to the Hong Kong Basic Law.” Her refusal to consider running while Leung was weighing his decision showed her loyalty, he said.

“She would be China’s favorite because she is perceived as being tough but also reasonably popular, whereas John Tsang might be popular, but not considered hard line enough,” Gittings said.

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