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Donald Tsang

‘Someone I admire’: three letters of mitigation for convicted former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang

Testimonies from former ministers including Wong Yan-lung, Carrie Lam and John Tsang offered ahead of his sentencing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 8:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 8:28am

Former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen might have been portrayed during the court hearing as a greedy leader. But an outpouring of support attempts suggests otherwise. Some 40 mitigating letters were presented to the court ahead of his sentencing.

Wong Yan-lung, justice secretary during Tsang’s tenure

re: Mr Tsang Yam-kuen, Donald

I have known Mr Donald Tsang (Donald) since 2005. As secretary for justice (SJ), I worked closely with Donald as chief executive (CE) between October 2005 and June 2012. In addition to official dealings, I consider Donald to be a good friend and someone I admire for his dedication to public service.

Donald’s over 40 years of services and contributions to Hong Kong is a matter of public record. Others will speak to his key role in helping Hong Kong weather through stormy financial crises. Here I would refer to his significant contributions to the public based on my own personal experience particularly in the area of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Friends and foes present mitigation letters in support of former Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang

During my seven-year tenure as SJ, I had on numerous occasions tendered legal advice to Donald as CE. He would sometimes debate with me and test the basis of the advice; but he has never acted against such legal advice. This in itself is a remarkable attribute as the head of the HKSAR.

Donald always said to me the governors he previously worked with, however headstrong, would always abide by the legal advice of the attorney general, and it is important that the CE of the HKSAR should stay that way.

Congo Case

One of the most important tasks, if not the most important task, of the CE of HKSAR is to faithfully and effectively implement the principle of “one country, two systems”. The power of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) to interpret the Basic Law (BL) and its exercise have always been considered a major challenge to the post-1997 constitutional order.

During my tenure as SJ, the NPCSC interpreted the BL once in 2011. That was upon the reference by the Court of Final Appeal (CFA) on the question of state immunity. The issue in the case is whether the PRC’s doctrine of absolute immunity (under which no foreign state can be sued in the court at all) should be followed in Hong Kong. Prior to 1997, Hong Kong’s common law provided for restrictive immunity, where foreign states could be sued if the dispute arose out of commercial transactions.

The HKSAR government lost in the Court of First Instance and in the Court of Appeal. If the government were to lose again in the CFA, it could stir up serious political and economic repercussions for China particularly vis-a-vis her African friends. The national interest of China was at stake. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was understandably very concerned.

Immense political pressure mounted. There were suggestions that Beijing should not take any risk but should consider taking more definitive measures such as an interpretation of the BL, before the appeal was heard. If that were to happen, on the eve of the appeal hearing, the damage to judicial independence would not be less than an overriding post-judgement interpretation.

I can testify that Donald has been solid and staunch in endorsing my stance against any extrajudicial measure in view of its adverse impact on the rule of law
Wong Yan-lung, former justice secretary

I cannot go into further details for confidentiality reasons. However, I can testify that Donald has been solid and staunch in endorsing my stance against any extrajudicial measure in view of its adverse impact on the rule of law.

Owing in no small part to Donald’s endorsement and resolve, the CPG was content to trust the HKSAR government and the CFA, and to leave the appeal to be heard by the highest court, despite grave risks and many conflicting views given by others. At the end, the government won in the CFA by a majority of 3 to 2. The court further referred the relevant BL provisions to Beijing for interpretation, as required under Article 158 of the BL, before pronouncing the final judgement. A huge constitutional crisis was warded off. The rule of law had prevailed.

Over this difficult episode, I know Donald had been under tremendous pressure. I remember often times he suffered from acute acid reflux before and after major discussions. Yet he stood firm throughout.

As CE, Donald had faithfully discharged the indispensable trust reposed by both the CPG and by Hong Kong. He had the courage to stand by what he believes to be right and the ability to address mutual concerns and to strengthen mutual understanding. He had performed well the crucial bridging role in the two-way process under one country two systems at critical times.

Constitutional Reform

There was another important event in which Donald’s principled stance had been vital in achieving a favourable result for Hong Kong: constitutional reform.

Although no change could be made to the imminent 2017 CE election method due to the setbacks in 2016, during Donald’s tenure as CE, he has made significant contributions toward moving Hong Kong closer to universal suffrage.

The first landmark was achieved, with tremendous efforts by the core team under Donald’s lead, when the NPCSC delivered its decision in December 2007 setting out “the timetable” and “road map” for universal suffrage in terms of the elections of CE and Legco.

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Second, in 2010, the government managed to secure the Legco’s support to pass the 2012 constitutional reform package. Here, Donald had played a pivotal role, one perhaps not many are aware of.

Whether the 2012 reform package could be passed in 2010 was crucial to ensure “gradual and orderly progress” and that the next round (i.e. the intended goals of universal suffrage in electing CE in 2017) could be achieved.

In June 2010, the original government proposal was losing support and hope was vanishing for it to be passed at Legco. Time was running out. Whether to modify the package by incorporating a proposal of the Democratic Party (i.e. the additional five district council functional constituency seats to be elected by over 3 million electorate, the new DCFC election method) appeared to be the lynchpin.

Without going into details again for confidentiality reasons, I can again testify that the make-or-break moment was when Donald made the timely and difficult decision to revise the package by incorporating the new DCFC election method. It was an agonising decision for him as he had to override certain internal opposition and to risk personal credibility and trust before the CPG. As an insider, I know that decision was not a political manoeuvre but a selfless act for the sake of the long-term well-being of Hong Kong and the smooth transition toward universal suffrage.

Watch: Donald Tsang after being convicted

Son of Hong Kong

Donald is truly a “son of Hong Kong”. His genuine concern for the public good is most vividly demonstrated when Hong Kong was caught in crises of one kind or another.

Hong Kong went through attacks of avian flu and swine flu. Donald tirelessly headed the cross-bureau task forces and chaired long and intensive meetings. I remember more than once Donald being caught in very heated debates with colleagues, pushing them to the limit to mobilise maximum resources and manpower, in order to give the public maximum protection again these outbreaks. He would grill colleagues over thorny issues such as requisitioning hotels as places of quarantine, not satisfied with the usual civil service response of reluctance, as the lives of many were at stake.

Over the Manila hostage incident in August 2010, Donald vigorously pressed the president of the Philippines for full investigation, joining the victims’ families and the rest of Hong Kong to cry for justice, although his action raised eyebrows as foreign affairs strictly is a matter for the CPG under Article 13 of the BL.

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Donald has a strong concern for young people. During my tenure, exceptionally I was commissioned to chair a steering committee to combat drug abuse by youth. The public might not realise this initiative in fact came from Donald. He was deeply concerned and alarmed by the reports reflecting the seriousness of the problem. He was determined to tackle the problem proactively. The steering committee was unprecedented, involving concerted and strategic efforts of different departments and bureaus. More importantly, Donald was instrumental in putting in substantial and sustainable resources to strengthen the efforts. The figures of reported drug abusers, particularly among young abusers, have seen significant decline in the past few years.

Other contributions on the rule of law

There was no shortage of controversial cases involving judicial reviews and fundamental human rights. Amid other voices and political pressure, Donald had fully taken on board the legal position that the government has a positive duty to protect such rights, including taking reasonable and appropriate measures to enable lawful demonstrations to take place peacefully.

Further, Donald also readily took on my advice regarding procedural fairness in handling government businesses with quasi-judicial element such as administrative appeals.

Donald truly believes in judicial independence. He assured me repeatedly the independent and internationally renowned judiciary in the HKSAR is our pride and the cornerstone of our success. His personal commitment to this cause is manifested in his positive response in acceding to many recommendations of the Mason Report endorsed by the Standing Committee on Judicial Salaries and Conditions of Service.

Furthermore, his conviction on the importance of the law as Hong Kong’s assets was amply manifested in his exceptional support in the development of Hong Kong’s capacity as an international arbitration centre. Donald was very understanding on the need of expansion on this front and had put in personal efforts to make it happen. He was instrumental in enabling resources are in place to secure additional space for the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, and to procure the arbitration arm of the International Chamber of Commerce and the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission to set up regional offices in Hong Kong.

A fair man who has given much to the public

Before joining the government, I was an Election Committee member of the legal subsector elected on the same ticket as Ms Audrey Eu [Yuet-mee], Mr Alan Leong [Kah-kit] and other vocal barristers. In that capacity, in 2005, I first met Donald in an election forum where I questioned him harshly and criticised the government’s earlier attitude over certain rule of law issues. Instead of bearing any grudge, in late summer of 2005, Donald invited me to take up the post as SJ, assuring me that he would give me full support in upholding the rule of law in Hong Kong. That equality of fairness in Donald and that personal assurance to me have never slackened in the following seven years in which I served in his cabinet.

As CE of the HKSAR, Donald had truly poured himself out. I strongly believe his significant contributions to Hong Kong in the past over four decades should be properly recognised.

Wong Yan-lung SC

February 20, 2017


Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, former chief secretary

Dear Sir,

As the Honourable Court may recall, I was a witness in the case of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. I write this letter to pray that your Lordship may extend leniency to Mr Tsang.

I have known Donald for over 30 years. As I said during the trial, he had been my role model in public service. For seven years between 1993 and 2000, he was my superior in the then Finance Branch and later Finance Bureau. I saw a hard-working, dedicated, and intelligent senior official who was a demanding yet caring supervisor.

Donald’s contribution as the first Chinese financial secretary and the financial secretary whose term straddled 1997 deserves special mention. In leading us to complete the 1997-1998 transitional budget, he helped make real the principle of “one country, two systems”. He also showed his strong compassion for those in need by putting in place a package of relief measures in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis.

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His perseverance in pressing ahead with difficult policy decisions and his untiring efforts in working with Legislative Council members across the political spectrum were exemplary. His skillful management of public finances and vision in embarking on a wide ranging public sector reform laid a foundation for Hong Kong’s fiscal strength after the reunification.

I was particularly indebted to Donald for the trust he placed in me in those years as well as during my five-year tenure as the secretary for development supporting policy innovation for bettering our society.

After serving his term as chief executive, Donald continued to care about our society and to show support to former colleagues. I recall that during the very difficult times of my handling the constitutional development issue, we met at a dinner. He made a point of encouraging me, and wrote on the menu, “Have faith in the people of Hong Kong”. Those are indeed wise words, and I have kept the menu with his handwritten note up to this day.

It is well known that Donald is a devout Catholic. Over the years, he has often shared with me the importance of faith and trust in God and that when the going gets tough, we should keep calm and pray. Whatever transgressions he may have committed, I believe Donald is overall an upright person and a man committed to service.

I pray that your Lordship may find it appropriate to show leniency to Mr Tsang and, as I have said in public, I hope his contribution to Hong Kong would continue to be recognised.

Yours humbly,

Carrie Lam


John Tsang Chun-wah, former financial secretary

[English translation]

To Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai of the High Court:

When I was studying for a master’s of public administration at Harvard University in 1981, I met Donald Tsang who was at the time sent by the Hong Kong government to study the same course in Harvard. Under the encouragement of Donald Tsang, I came back to Hong Kong in 1982 to apply for the position as an administrative officer, and was appointed as the assistant district officer in Sha Tin. My senior at the time was Donald Tsang. Until 2005, I became the director of the Chief Executive’s Office under Donald Tsang as the Chief Executive, and was later appointed as the financial secretary.

I have known Donald Tsang for 36 years, and we have worked together in the government for 30 years.

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During this 30-year relationship as colleagues, I have witnessed his enthusiasm in serving Hong Kong – whether it was resisting financial speculators during the financial crisis in 1998, or leading governmental departments into improving health conditions in Hong Kong after Sars in 2003, and later overcoming the many obstacles to enforce minimum wage, he has acted wholeheartedly for the benefit of Hongkongers.

During my appointment as the director of the Chief Executive’s Office from 2005 to 2007, I knew very well the heavy workload of the chief executive. Donald Tsang would pay special attention to measures that would significantly impact the public. I believe a lot of fellow colleagues would still remember his midnight emails and weekend calls.

Donald Tsang had worked in the government for 45 years and gave it his all. I wish that Mr Justice would be more lenient and exempt him from prison at the age of 72 considering his 45-year contribution to the society.

Best wishes

John Tsang Chun-wah

February 16, 2017

Letters compiled by Ng Kang-chung and Raymond Yeung