SCMP Saturday, May 12, 2001

Donald the defender faces tricky time with the media

Twice in his first three days as head of the civil service, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen affirmed his commitment to press freedom and the need to work with the media. And the new Chief Secretary for Administration is likely to harp on the theme again when he officiates at the Journalists Association's annual dinner on June 1.
His predecessor, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, has often been hailed as the "conscience" of Hong Kong. But as far as public statements are concerned, Mr Tsang has been even more assertive than Mrs Chan in defending civil liberties.
"The press," he observed last week, "is very much the icon of Hong Kong's commitment to remaining in the league of open and civilised world-class cities."
Quite apart from his adherence to such basic principles, Mr Tsang has recognised the practical potential of the media as a communication tool for the Government to reach out to the public. He is the first official to refer to the news media as "a major resource in Hong Kong".
"We must," he asserted, "make sure that the Government will work in a more transparent manner, explaining through the media to the Hong Kong people what we are doing, why we are doing things, and why it is in the best interests of Hong Kong in the long term."
And in his first media session as Chief Secretary last Wednesday, he pledged to "maintain a very close dialogue and close relationship with the news media".
Mr Tsang has indeed been practising what he preaches, probably investing more time on cultivating ties with the media than any of his senior colleagues, including Mrs Chan. During a trip to New York, he called on the editorial boards of some quality newspapers. He found the experience so fruitful that he asked for similar visits to be arranged to the local media after his return to Hong Kong.
Mr Tsang was also the first Financial Secretary to mount public consultation exercises before finalising his annual budgets. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, he initiated pre-budget workshops to ensure officials could tap the brains of academics, politicians and business people. He also made a point of communicating with editors, commentators and talk-show hosts to make sure they understood, if not appreciated, the Government's view.
Informal press briefings by policy secretaries have become common. But instead of hard-selling his policies, Mr Tsang has been tactful enough to leave the impression that he treasures his guests' contributions. He is also one of the few top officials who knows influential media figures well enough that he can pick up the phone and chat with them at any time.
At times, Mr Tsang can be candid to the point of being blunt. More than a decade ago, he told the press that people of Hong Kong, himself included, would be happy to burn their British passports should China become free and democratic. But Mr Tsang has remained a Chinese national. And as he ascended the ladder of the bureaucracy over the years, he has become more diplomatic. It is unlikely he will make another foot-in-mouth remark to offend Beijing.
Mr Tsang could perhaps afford to be more forthcoming with the media when his portfolio was confined to public finance. In his new post as Chief Secretary, he is expected to function as Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's most visible line of defence on all fronts, a role Mrs Chan never assumed. This will be a new ball game which may make it difficult for Mr Tsang to continue his honeymoon with the media.
Andy Ho ( ) is a political commentator.