Former HK leader Donald Tsang ‘dragged into a whirlpool’

Ben Bland
Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's former chief executive, center, leaves the Eastern Magistrates' Court in Hong Kong, China, on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. Tsang, who completed his tenure as Hong Kong's No. 1 official in 2012, was charged with two counts of misconduct in public office, the anti-corruption bureau said.
Billy H.C. Kwok | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After three years of anguish while he waited for Hong Kong's anti-corruption body to complete an investigation into his ties with the city's tycoons, former chief executive Donald Tsang found out on Monday he was being charged with misconduct in public office.

True to his reputation as an unflappable administrator, he appeared resolute as he arrived in court on Monday to face the charges, wading through the massed ranks of the city's rambunctious journalists wearing one of his trademark bow ties, with his wife by his side.

He stands accused of failing to disclose that he rented an upmarket apartment from a businessman who later received a broadcasting licence and that the architect he had nominated for a civic award had designed the flat's interior.

Hong Kong's Department of Justice said there was insufficient evidence to bring further charges related to allegations that he received other inappropriate favours from businessmen, including overseas flights on private jets and the use of luxury yachts.

After a lengthy investigation, the prosecution is seen by some in Hong Kong as a blow to the cosy relationship between the city's political class and its influential billionaires, which has endured while inequality and the cost of living have spiralled to painful levels.

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Ironically, Mr Tsang himself is a self-made meritocrat, having worked his way up from the British colonial civil service to hold the highest political office in Hong Kong after it was handed back to China in 1997.

A devout Catholic inspired by Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who brought the religion to China in the 16th century, Mr Tsang has professed his innocence in typically terse terms.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, the allegations will blight the career of a leader who was never wildly popular but was often respected for his competence as he helped steer Hong Kong through the perilous waters of the Asian financial crisis and the transition from British rule.

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"He's the only person to have held the top three posts in the Hong Kong government and he made an important contribution to the governance of Hong Kong," says Anson Chan, the top civil servant in the Chinese territory until 2001, when she resigned and was replaced by Mr Tsang.

Appointed as Hong Kong's first non-British financial secretary in 1995, he continued in the role after the handover and faced one of his biggest challenges in 1998 when he put aside his strong free-market beliefs to lead a government bailout of the stock market that spared the city the ravages of the Asian financial crisis.

As chief executive from 2005 to 2012, he was an "effective and efficient technocrat" but struggled to innovate, says Samson Yuen, a political analyst at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.

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He says that while Mr Tsang was a popular administrator, once he became chief executive he was hamstrung by the same two issues that handicap current chief executive CY Leung to this day: a lack of legitimacy — Hong Kong's highest official is elected by committee, not by the people — and soaring property prices.

Speaking outside the court on Monday, Mr Tsang's wife Selina said that after 45 years as a public servant starting work before attending morning mass each day, he had hoped for a quiet retirement.

But with the investigation into allegations of misconduct launched even before he stepped down as chief executive, Mr Tsang's ambition to spend more time relaxing with his beloved koi carp was never likely to come to fruition

"Instead," said Mrs Tsang, "we now find ourselves dragged into a whirlpool."

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