Barely three years ago he was a yesterday's man, a once-powerful mandarin of the civil service effectively sidelined as a minister without portfolio. And almost a year ago to the day, when Donald Tsang Yam-kuen received the cold shoulder from high officials in Beijing, he could not have imagined that, 12 months later, he would be the most powerful politician in Hong Kong. When Mr Tsang was told that he would remain chief secretary in Tung Chee-hwa's cabinet in 2002 after the ministerial system was introduced, the position was downgraded to that of a co-ordinator. Mr Tsang was told to first look after the government's population policy and cross-border relations. The limelight was taken by new ministers eager to implement their grand plans. For his detractors, there was no small amount of Schadenfreude in his appointment to head the government's Team Clean, set up to encourage better public hygiene after the devastating impact of Sars in 2003. Some commentators believed that the political career of Mr Tsang, who is loathed by local leftists as a relic from the colonial government but who is popular with the general public, was in terminal decline. Then, perhaps because he was the most popular official, Mr Tsang was entrusted with the onerous task of heading the government's constitutional reform taskforce. Facing, on the one side, the demand of a strong portion of the public for universal suffrage and, on the other, Beijing's wariness about democracy in Hong Kong, Mr Tsang shuttled to the snowy capital in February 2004 and asked for his orders. It wasn't the warmest of welcomes. He was met by Xu Ze , deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, instead of more senior officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs. A man sometimes criticised for overconfidence appeared nervous and fidgety in television footage of him sitting next to Mr Xu. In talks with elderly mainland Basic Law experts, the so-called 'guardians' of the mini-constitution seemed more interested in catching up with pro-Beijing figure Elsie Leung Oi-sie, the secretary for justice, than in talking to him. After that, his fortunes began to improve. His political acumen in handling controversial issues such as universal suffrage and the West Kowloon cultural district development have won him respect in Beijing. That was probably why, in December, President Hu Jintao warmly shook hands with Mr Tsang while giving Mr Tung a could-do-better assessment. Who now will care about Mr Tsang's remark last month about taking up farming when he retires and his comment that the thought of becoming leader would 'blow my mind'?