Tsang's only option is full disclosure
Until Thursday, the defining event of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's public career was leading the defence of the Hong Kong dollar against foreign speculators during the Asian financial crisis. This may still be part of his legacy to Hong Kong, but it will no longer be his defining moment. Instead, it is the scandal that has engulfed him over his private dealings with tycoons from whom he accepted hospitality and favours, which has shaken public confidence in the city's government and institutions.
Tsang had the opportunity to mitigate that damage when he appeared before the Legislative Council on Thursday to give an account of himself. It was his biggest challenge since staring down the attack on the currency. He fell short. We do not doubt his show of contrition and apology to the public. But the initial reaction from lawmakers and people in the street shows this was not enough, given the questions that remain unanswered and the blow to public confidence.
Though he said he was sorry, he was still not convinced he had done anything wrong. In fact, he blamed the lack of a code of conduct for his behaviour, which falls short of what is expected of the chief executive. That is a touch ridiculous. As the occupant of the highest office in Hong Kong, he must hold himself to the highest standards. When details of his dealings with tycoons first emerged, he cautioned against viewing events in the context of conspiracy theories. That betrayed an appalling lapse of judgment about the potential for perception to erode public trust. Only on Thursday did he begin to come to terms with the damaging implications for the city's 160,000 civil servants, its institutions and public faith in government. That damage will take a long time to heal
Tsang's appointment of an independent panel headed by a former chief justice to review the code of conduct for top officials is welcome. But it is seen as a distraction from what he failed to do on Thursday. He should have released the names of his tycoon friends, as well as documentation of reimbursement for privileged hospitality he enjoyed on private yachts and jets. His refusal to name his friends on the grounds of privacy sat oddly with his argument that he had done nothing wrong. If that is so, what is there to fear in releasing the information? To do otherwise is to raise concerns that it was an attempt to head off more damaging disclosures.
If Tsang is to be taken at his word when he says, 'no matter whether you trust me, don't lose faith in Hong Kong's institutions', he should act more like the man who went for broke to fight off foreign predators. He should release full details and admit culpability. Only then can the city set about repairing the damage to public trust with any confidence.