A ‘story of greed’ or simply a mistake? How Donald Tsang went from planning his retirement to fighting corruption charges
Both sides’ arguments as the nine-member jury decides the former chief executive’s fate
After years in the public eye, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen may have been looking forward to a peaceful retirement in a luxurious Shenzhen penthouse. But instead of kicking up his heels, Hong Kong’s former chief executive has found himself fighting to avoid jail.
For the past six weeks, Tsang has been on trial for bribery and corruption. The prosecution’s case centres around a three-storey apartment where he and his wife had planned to live after his term as chief executive concluded in 2012.
On Thursday morning, Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai gave his closing remarks to the nine-member jury which must now determine whether Tsang, 72, is guilty of one count of accepting a HK$3.35 million bribe in the form of apartment renovations, and two counts of misconduct in office. All three charges carry a possible seven-year jail sentence.
The jury will have to decide between the prosecution’s “story of greed”, and the defence’s argument that Tsang had simply made mistakes, but never did anything criminal.
In 2010, Tsang was looking forward to retirement, the court heard, and began looking for a place with his wife of 40 years, Selina Tsang Pou Siu-mei. They hoped their new home would provide the pair with some privacy after Tsang’s long career in politics, and have space for all of their property, after a time in the palatial Government House.
Tsang began negotiating with businessman Bill Wong Cho-bau, director of property company East Pacific Holdings, over a redevelopment of a formerly “unsanitary” clubhouse in Shenzhen.
But Wong was also a major shareholder in radio station Wave Media.
Executive councillors are required to declare any conflicts of interest before debating an issue. But Tsang did not disclose his connection to Wong when he approved three licence applications from the radio station – two in 2010 and another in 2012. One of the applications sought to switch the station’s broadcasting licence to a digital one.
In November 2010, the same month Wave Media’s broadcasting licence was approved, Tsang’s wife transferred 800,000 yuan (HK$902,000) to Wong’s company. The defence said the payment was rent for the apartment, but the prosecution suggested it could have instead been Tsang buying the property from Wong at a bargain price, putting the then chief executive in a “position of obligation”.
The only other possibility, according to the prosecution, was that the 800,000 yuan was Tsang paying for a licence to occupy the property under value.
During the trial, the prosecution alleged that Bank of East Asia chairman and Wong’s fellow Wave Media shareholder David Li Kwok-po had given Tsang HK$350,000 in July 2010, which formed part of the 800,000 yuan payment.
Then in early 2011, prominent interior designer Barrie Ho Chow-lai received a cold call from East Pacific asking him to design the renovation for the three-storey Shenzhen apartment, which the property developer would pay for.
After discussing the renovation with then Wave Media chairman Albert Cheng King-hon – described as the “dominant and driving force behind Wave Media” – Ho agreed to take the job.
It was revealed that the designer then began talking to Tsang’s wife on a regular basis, the pair meeting 14 times at Government House, Ho’s office and at the Shenzhen property to discuss the HK$3.35 million renovation, which included an automated toilet, a calligraphy room and alterations on the advice of a feng shui master.
Before April 2011, Tsang suggested Ho be nominated for an honour, but did not disclose the connection between them. The prosecution said Tsang used the awards system as his “personal plaything” to reward the designer for his work on the penthouse.
Tsang’s “whiter than white”, churchgoing image was called into question in February 2012, when reports of private yacht rides and banquets with businessmen were splashed across the city’s newspapers.
Amid the criticism, Tsang revealed his retirement plans. The receipt for the 800,000 yuan payment and the lease agreements, which the prosecution said were created later as part of a “cover -up”, were also dated February 2012.
Around the same time, the Independent Commission Against Corruption started to look into Tsang’s actions, but it wasn’t until 2015 that he was charged with misconduct, becoming the most senior public official in Hong Kong to be arrested on corruption charges.
With all the details now on the table, the prosecution acknowledged that their story had gaps, but insisted they only proved how secretive Tsang was.
Defence lawyer Clare Montgomery QC, who didn’t call any witnesses of her own, said the missing pieces showed the weakness of the prosecution’s case.
“The prosecution’s case is nothing more than an invitation for you to speculate, to guess, to think the worst of [Tsang] without offering you any evidence,” she said.
In her closing address, she questioned why Wong would feel the need to bribe Tsang when he wasn’t Wave Media’s majority shareholder, and said both of the radio station’s applications were likely to be approved anyway.
She asked why Tsang, who was only months from the end of his “glittering” public service career, would accept a bribe.
Offering renovations to prospective clients was “normal” and if the design work benefited anyone, it was the landlord, not the short-term tenants, Montgomery said.
She said Tsang did not think to declare his connection to Wong, as the link was “far-fetched”, and that revealing his connection to Ho might have looked like an attempt by the then chief executive to exert pressure on his subordinates.
“It is a theory, unsubstantiated by any evidence,” she said of the prosecution’s case.