14th July 2014 SCMP
The exit door appears more appealing as Jasper Tsang’s struggle to hold the balance between the opposition and Beijing becomes more difficult
Jasper Tsang Yok-sing may be one of the most open-minded politicians from the pro-Beijing camp, but even he himself laments that it is getting harder to bridge the rift between the opposition and the central government.
The Legislative Council president concedes that acting as a middleman between pan-democrats and Beijing is no longer easy. “I have said what I should say. But this is no use,” he said in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post.
“But you have got to judge whether saying such things would help solve the problem. Even people in my circle blame me, [saying]: ‘How can you ask Beijing to relax in the current situation, when radicals dominate?’”
Tsang was referring to his remark in September last year, when he caused a stir by calling on Beijing to “dispel the devil from its mind” and refrain from trying to screen candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive election in 2017.
A more open-minded attitude would facilitate the debate, he urged.
The political heavyweight says the current atmosphere in the city – with Occupy Central preparing to take to the streets once Beijing rules out public nomination for the 2017 election – is too polarised. From his experience, the more antagonised the pan-democrats are, the less willing Beijing is to step back and let Hong Kong people rule themselves.
“I have very strong and clear feelings about this [relationship],” he said. In the early post-handover years, Beijing leaders exercised self-restraint and left Hong Kong people alone. They utterly refused to entertain people like businessmen who went to Beijing to complain about problems in Hong Kong.
“I couldn’t even use DAB [his party’s name] in a visit to Shenzhen as it would appear political. I was only introduced as a ‘Hong Kong celebrity’,” said.
It took the Hong Kong government’s withdrawal of the controversial national security bill, after 500,000 people marched on July 1 in 2003, to make Beijing give up its non-intervention policy, Tsang noted.
Tsang, 67, has never confirmed whether he is a member of the Communist Party, a question he faces from lawmakers such as “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung every now and then.
But Tsang’s sympathy with the mainland should come as no surprise if one looks back at his student life.
He was educated at St Paul’s College, known for its anti-communist tradition, and raised in a patriotic family, with his father working as secretary at the Hong Kong Chinese General Chamber of Commerce.
Tsang grew up reading Wen Wei Po every day and was impressed by scientific advances on the mainland in the 1950s, according to Hong Kong’s Watershed: The 1967 Riots, by Post journalist Gary Cheung Ka-wai.
When the 1967 riots broke out in Hong Kong, Tsang, a self-proclaimed Marxist, published two articles in a student publication of the University of Hong Kong that discussed Marxism and condemned the capitalists for labour exploitation.
He was immediately snubbed by his peers, who mostly supported the colonial government. They even saw him as “dangerous” after his brother Tsang Tak-sing, now Secretary for Home Affairs, was prosecuted for distributing “inflammatory leaflets” at school.
A year after the riots, Tsang graduated with first-class honours from the university’s department of mathematics, and declined offers from four universities in the United States for further studies.
He eventually joined the pro-Beijing Pui Kiu Middle School in North Point as a teacher in the hope of finding a career on the mainland in the future.
Since then he has become a high-flyer in the leftist camp. He founded the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong in 1992. And the rest is history.
Now, Tsang has found something in common with the young protesters who clashed with police during protests against new-town projects outside Legco last month.
While government officials and his colleagues in the DAB condemned them as violent, Tsang disagreed: “You can’t say they were ‘manipulated’ or even controlled by foreign influences. Some of them have their interests affected, but a lot more of them came because they really saw injustice in our society,” he said.
The Legco president is also known for the quick wit and humour he sometimes uses in handling rows among lawmakers during Legco meetings.
Many of these anecdotes have turned out to be popular posts on YouTube.
In one example, a clip showing Tsang telling an angry Ann Chiang Lai-wan – vice-chairwoman of Tsang’s party – to “be modest and patient” after she complained of some pan-democrats sidetracking a debate, has received over 86,000 hits.
Despite his call for tolerance and restraint on both sides, Tsang says he can’t help but feel the chance for reaching a consensus on political reform is “slim”. “But my philosophy is, always stay positive and analyse the problem, no matter how bad the situation is,” he says.
While acting as a middleman may no longer help to close the gap, Tsang has started something more practical: he is planning a fact-finding trip to the US over the summer to study the experiences of high-powered think tanks before attempting to form one in Hong Kong.
“We should not panic. We need a think tank and we need to find solutions to the problems, through scientific research,” the maths graduate said.
Lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, of the Federation of Trade Unions, who has also been told to be “patient” and not to abuse Legco procedures to interrupt others, said he could not think of any better candidate than Tsang for the Legco presidency.
“He’s always like a liberal kind of scholar, and a person with strong character, who does not compromise under government pressure.
“It’s all right that he tends to be soft-handed with pan-democrats, because a tough stance could provoke them and wouldn’t help matters,” Wong said.
Leung, one of the lawmakers who often gets expelled from the chamber by the president for throwing things from his seat in protest, agreed Tsang had been reasonable.
“The Legco president should not stay politically neutral nowadays … With the government abusing the concept of the rule of law in promoting political reform, the Legco president should speak up. I think he has done right.”
Leung also said Tsang remained the most suitable person to chair Legco. “Take my word for it, Tsang is not that shameful. I hope he will stay with us.”
He was making a mocking reference to his usual accusations that some pro-Beijing politicians have “got no shame”.
Despite the compliments, Tsang said he was thinking about stepping down from Legco in the next term.
He drew attention to a piece of calligraphy newly hung on a wall in his office, which was a Chinese phrase meaning “fair and impartial”, from the legend of King Yao handing his throne to King Shun.
“Of course I don’t mean I am a king. But it may be time for me to stand down soon,” he said.