Chief Executive candidates (L-R) former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, former Financial Secretary John Tsang and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing take part in a debate in Hong Kong, China March 19, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

Don’t judge a person by ones desk, but by one’s work, so says the saying. And this rang true at the debate on Sunday night between three candidates vying to become Hong Kong’s next chief executive.

The trio struck a lighter note when they were asked if they had any compliments instead of barbs to dish out on each other.

Former chief secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wasted no time in piping up about how jealous she was of the clean desk her rival John Tsang Chun-wah kept when he was the financial secretary. She was also the only one prepared to make a compliment, while Tsang and retired judge Woo Kwok-hing only had barbs for her. 

Lam said that while she served under him as secretary for development, she had told Tsang that she often envied his clean desk because it was never possible for her to do the same.

Her so-called compliment could be interpreted as a sarcastic sting because she used to criticize Tsang for being a conservative, if not lazy, financial secretary. She believed he was simply warming the seat for more than nine years because he wanted to contest the election for chief executive, which will be held on March 26.

But Tsang immediately hit back and said it was less important to work hard, but more important to work smart.

Tsang won rounds of applause against Lam, a hard-working civil servant for life before she quit her role as chief secretary. Coincidentally, their resignations were approved by Beijing on the same day.

The clean desk debate quickly spread online as netizens said they doubted that would be a good indicator of one’s ability.

Blogger Bruce Lui, a voter from the higher education sector in the 1,194-member Election Committee, posted a photo of President Xi Jinping and his clean and paperless desk.

Lui quoted Li Zhanshu, director of the General Office of the Communist Party of China, saying that “President Xi asked us to keep all papers on our desks so all matters can be handled within a day because he has also achieved this.”

Lui asked, “Lam, what would you say about President Xi’s desk?”

Some also posted a photo of the desk of Li Ka-shing, the city’s No 1 billionaire who insists on going to work every day as he approaches his 89th birthday.

Others quoted Sir Richard Branson, saying “a good leader doesn’t get stuck behind a desk.”

Known for her workaholic style in which she often sends emails after midnight to her subordinates, Lam was seen as the one who would get the top job this Sunday when 1,194 representatives will cast their votes on who will run Hong Kong in the next five years.

Thanks to the blessing from the Hong Kong liaison office of the central government, Lam should be able to win the majority of votes in the first round against Tsang and Woo.   

If Lam wins, which is more than likely, and continues her usual micro-management style, she will probably need a bigger desk for her documents.