Donald Tsang has been known to act boldly and speak bluntly.
Hong Kong’s financial secretary launched a controversial intervention in the stock market in late 1998, spending billions on shares to punish speculators trying to push prices lower.
Critics accused him of disregarding the free market principles Hong Kong holds sacred. Tsang’s response: “Do we want Hong Kong to become an automatic teller machine for international speculators?”
Before Hong Kong was returned to China, Tsang once told reporters that if leaders in Beijing ever told him how to spend Hong Kong’s money he would tell them to “take a flying leap.”
It’s not the sort of remark he’s likely to make now.
Tsang is widely expected to replace Hong Kong’s No. 2 government official, Chief Secretary of Administration Anson Chan, in a transition drawing mixed reviews here.
Hong Kong politicians and local analysts say he would bring many sterling qualities to the job, and he’s earned it after 33 years in government.
Among critics’ worries: Tsang’s tendency to publicly refer to Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa as “boss.”
Some here believe Tsang would be too much of a yes-man, and they’d have to keep fingers crossed it wouldn’t tarnish Hong Kong’s tradition of evenhanded governance that has been a cornerstone of its credibility as a financial hub.
“If he refuses to dance with the chief executive, he will be trotting the old path of Anson, first seeing his power undermined and second being laid off,” warned opposition lawmaker Cyd Ho.
The immensely popular Chan says she’s quitting to spend more time with her family but nobody believes it.
Observers say Chan’s fighting with Tung spelled the end, after she was warned in September by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen that she and the rest of the civil service should more strongly support Tung.
Tsang has declined comment on reports he will get the job. Tung said he hopes to name his pick this week.
Like Chan, Tsang has long ties to the west and Hong Kong’s colonial past. Now 56, Tsang was the first Chinese to get the job running the finances of one of Asia’s wealthiest economies.
Tsang is a Catholic _ and analysts here say that might be one reason why it has taken longer than some had expected for Tung to announce who will get the job. Beijing and the Vatican are continually feuding, and Tung’s pick for the job needs Beijing’s approval.
“I do think there was some question of loyalty, and the mainland does not trust devout Catholics,” said Michael DeGolyer, a political scientist at the Hong Kong Baptist University. “If he gets the job, we have to give the central government and the local government some credit. At the same time, we have to look at who he is.”
Critics say Tsang shifts too much with the political winds and unwavering loyalty to the boss might not be the best quality for a chief secretary in charge of the territory’s 180,000 civil servants.
With her radiant demeanor and impeccable English accent, Chan made her role quite public, becoming symbolic of Hong Kong’s transition from West to East. Tsang also scores well on the public relations front, and commands 60 percent to 70 percent support in popularity polls.
Tsang wears a bow tie and holds a British knighthood, although he seems shy about the title “Sir Donald.” He did not study at an undergraduate university, though he earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard.
If Tsang gets the job, he will inevitably get attention for who he is not.
“He is a person who is inured to authority, unlike Anson Chan,” DeGolyer said. “He does have principles, just like Anson Chan. He’s not going to watch the civil service destruct. He will fight vehemently or walk away. He’s just more willing to bend than Anson Chan.”
That could be just what Tung and local pro-Beijing allies are looking for.
“It’s a good thing,” said Xu Simin, Hong Kong’s representative to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. “Hong Kong, as we all know, is a financial center, a trading center _ or any center but a political center.”
Tsang’s intimate knowledge of Hong Kong’s money would help him administer a bureaucracy where civil servants can try to bluff their way out of finishing projects on time by saying they lack the funding.
But some people say he may have been too involved in finance to learn about the problems confronting many ordinary citizens.