The rise and fall of ‘Hong Kong boy’ Donald Tsang
The long-time civil servant rose quickly through the ranks, becoming chief executive in 2005 before the court case brought him back down to earth
The rise and fall of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen – the city’s chief executive who took pride in being a “Hong Kong boy” and pledged to operate in the full glare of publicity – could well be handily summed up by two “firsts”.
The 45-year career civil servant hit the spotlight when he became the first Chinese financial secretary in last governor Chris Patten’s sunset colonial administration.
But 22 years later, in 2017, Tsang – who climbed to the top before retiring – also became the city’s first former leader to be found guilty of a criminal charge.
He was found guilty of one charge of misconduct for failing to declare a conflict of interest when he approved a string of applications by Bill Wong Cho-bau’s radio station, Wave Media, while also negotiating with Wong over a three-storey Shenzhen penthouse he planned to retire to.
The jurors entered a majority verdict with eight finding him guilty and one dissenting.
The penthouse was decorated by renowned interior designer Barrie Ho Chow-lai and paid for by Wong’s company.
Tsang had faced a second charge of misconduct, accused of failing to declare Ho’s engagement for work on the penthouse when he recommended to the relevant government committee that Ho should receive an honour. On this charge, the jury were unanimous that he was not guilty.
On the charge of accepting an advantage as a chief executive, the jury could not agree on a verdict.
His trial not only laid bare Tsang’s web of connections with the city’s rich, but also stood in stark contrast with Tsang’s earlier days when the Wah Yan College boy joined the government as an executive officer in 1967.
As the son of a police officer, he had grown up in the police married quarters – now the redeveloped PMQ – a stone’s throw from what is now the trendy Soho bar area.
Tsang took up various government posts before he was sent by the colonial government to study at Harvard University in the US in 1981 and met now chief executive election contender John Tsang Chun-wah.
There, he encouraged Tsang, who would later become his financial chief, to return to Hong Kong and join the government.
Donald Tsang’s big moment came in 1995 when he was appointed financial secretary, the first Chinese to take the post. He was successful in countering the Asian financial crisis that took place two years later and shortly after the handover.
In 2001, he went on to become chief secretary, and four years later raised hopes of a different governance approach when he became chief executive after his predecessor Tung Chee-hwa stepped down amid plunging popularity.
During his term, the church-going Catholic held daily “prayer meetings” – essentially a gathering every morning for his top guns to talk about important issues. The first two years of his leadership were his honeymoon period.
In 2008, just before his support began to wane, he extended section 4 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance, which criminalises officials soliciting or accepting an advantage, to the chief executive. He later become the first leader to fall foul of the change.
Support began to dwindle after 2007 when he sought re-election. He named Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po as his campaign manager, the very person he was accused of accepting HK$350,000 from in 2010 during his trial. Li was also a shareholder of Wave Media.
Nonetheless, Tsang continued to be highly regarded by his colleagues as revealed during the trial. Chief executive aspirant Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who served as development minster under Tsang, testified that he was her “role model”.
“Mr Tsang was very committed to public service and has been my role model in my career as a civil servant,” Lam testified during the trial.
His then permanent commerce secretary, Elizabeth Tse Man-yee, called Tsang “devoted” and “straightforward”, not the “scheming” type.
It was not until 2012 that things began to spiral downwards, when the press turned on private jet and yacht trips offered by some of the city’s richest people. It later led to further revelations about Bill Wong and the Shenzhen penthouse – and the investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Tsang appeared on a radio programme to identity himself as a “Hong Kong boy” and stress that he had been operating “in the sunlight”, in an apparent bid to ease public concerns.
A month before he stepped down in July 2012, Tsang fought back tears as he offered “sincere apologies” over the saga to the public. Since then, Tsang has also been criticised for his lack of effort to combat the city’s pressing housing problems.
The former chief executive stayed low-key during the investigation until he was brought to Eastern Court for the first time in May 2015.
When the existence of the Shenzhen penthouse surfaced in 2012, Tsang addressed the press by saying that he and his wife had chosen to live in Shenzhen for a period after his retirement as they wanted to stay away from the limelight.
But that was not to be as Tsang abandoned the plan to move to Shenzhen amid increasing press interest. The corruption case further dashed his plans.