He always insists on wearing a bow tie. He is just over 160 centimeters (5 feet, 3 inches) tall. Although he is 65 years old, he looks like he is in his 50s or 40s. He is quiet but smart and wise. Hong Kong people have nicknamed him “Bow-tie Tsang.”
His name is Donald Tsang. He is the current chief executive and head of the government of Hong Kong. He is known for his “bow-tie” leadership centered on pragmatism.
About 20 years ago, Tsang was Hong Kong’s director of administration. One day, British diplomat Stephen Bradley, who was serving as deputy political adviser at the time and was consul-general in Hong Kong until last year, gave him a bow tie as a gift.
Tsang wore it for a week, and since then has worn one every day. People around him said it was silly and laughed, but Tsang did not care.
In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Hong Kong to attend an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. Even on this austere occasion, Tsang did not give up his bow tie.
Later, a broadcast journalist asked him why, to which Tsang replied, “Because it is comfortable and simple.”
It is a classic demonstration of Tsang’s consistency and self-confidence.
In 1997, a few days before Hong Kong’s handover to China, the British government abruptly proposed that Tsang be given the Order of the British Empire for his 30 years of service. It was a great honor, but Hong Kong was poised to become part of China, not Great Britain.
So it was a proposal with political implications. Tsang, however, accepted. A few days later, he was made a Knight Commander in the Order of the British Empire by Charles, the Prince of Wales. This could have been interpreted as giving up the Chinese government’s favor.
Then he insisted that he would use the title “Honorable” instead of “Sir” in front of his name. He probably did this in order to remain a senior official in the Chinese government. This was a great compromise. He had learned pragmatism from the spirit of moderation.
At the time of the Asian financial crisis, he was financial secretary of Hong Kong. Foreign funds played havoc with Hong Kong’s stock market every day. The Hong Kong currency, pegged to the U.S. dollar, fluctuated. Tsang employed all possible measures to block speculative funds from entering the market.
The Western media attacked him every day. Hong Kong has given up the foundation of the new liberalism - small government, big market- they said. The opposition also criticized Tsang for ruining the international community’s confidence in Hong Kong with government intervention.
In response, Tsang asked his critics, “Will they [international speculative funds] feed us when we go bankrupt?”
His economic governing style is to close the textbook in times of crisis. That is why his pragmatism is said to be realistic.
A few days ago, he announced to the legislature that he will concentrate on overcoming the financial crisis, suspending discussions on political reform such as the introduction of direct elections for the chief executive of the Hong Kong government.
Lawmakers affiliated with the democratization movement jumped up from their seats and interrupted Tsang’s address, while the media criticized him for slowing down the democratization effort in the name of the economy.
He thundered at them, “No policy comes before smoothing out the wrinkles for the people.”
He was determined not to waste power on political issues while the economy is on the brink of destruction. His pragmatism comes from his ability to prioritize policies.
In 1967, he began his public service career in the secretary’s office to the Hong Kong chief executive. During his 42 years of civil service, he faced many crises. His relatives were criticized as corrupt. He loves carp, so he built a carp pond at his residence with government money. The public severely criticized him for doing so.
Hong Kong, however, did not hold him accountable because his abilities and expertise were valuable. His pragmatism was nurtured by Hong Kong’s culture.
That is probably why Hong Kong, along with China, believes in its ability to overcome the financial crisis soon.
The writer is the Hong Kong correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Choi Hyung-kyu